*** Award Winning Article: International Davey Award, Silver Award
Your child’s teenage years are about more than homework and driver education training: It’s a critical time for building strong bones. We develop about one-half of our lifelong bone mass – not just length – in our teen years.
Our bones are constantly growing and redissolving. During the first 20 years of our lives, the emphasis is on growing bone mass. After age 30 or so, we begin to lose bone mass at a steady rate. The good news is that with proper nutrition and exercise we can slow down this bone loss. In addition, the more bone mass we’ve stored up as teenagers, the more we have to draw on as adults.
Teens with asthma, food allergies or related conditions may need to take extra steps to build strong bones if they take certain medications or have restricted diets. For instance, long-term use of oral or inhaled corticosteroids may be harmful to your bones, which is one reason doctors prescribe them at the lowest possible dose. Long-term use of medications for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can hurt your body’s ability to use minerals like calcium and magnesium. Children who can’t eat dairy products or seafood may be missing out on bone-building nutrients, but these can be replaced with smart food choices.
Need Those Nutrients
Calcium and vitamin D top the charts of bone-building staples. And they need each other to work effectively.
Calcium, a required mineral for healthy bones, teeth and overall body function, can be found in dairy products, leafy green vegetables and specially fortified foods. It’s not much good, though, without vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Consume vitamin D in dairy products, fish and fortified cereals or let your skin do the work by getting 10-15 minutes of sunshine per day.
If your teen is allergic to cow’s milk, Susan Roselle, MS, a certified nutrition specialist in Fairfax, Virginia, recommends dairy-free alternatives such as soy and rice milk (fortified with vitamin D). If he is lactose intolerant, choose lactose-free products. These products are all readily available in grocery stores.
Preteens and teens (ages 9-17) should get about 1300 mg of calcium a day, according to U.S. dietary guidelines. That’s a bit more than the adult recommendation (1,000 mg for ages 18-50) and significantly more than children’s levels (210-270 mg for infants; 500 mg for kids ages 1-3; 800 mg for ages 4-8).
How do you know if your teen is reaching these levels? Check food labels carefully.
Food labels list calcium content as a “percent of Daily Value (DV).” Since this is based on the adult recommendation of 1,000 mg per day, you’ll have to do some simple math to figure exactly how much calcium is in each serving. To convert DV to milligrams, simply multiply by 10 or add a 0. For example, the yogurt container pictured here lists 20% DV for calcium. Multiply by 10 or add a 0 and you get 200 mg of calcium for this container of yogurt.
Where To Find Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a bit easier to calculate since the daily requirement for everyone up to age 50 is 200 mg (requirements increase for older adults). If you can’t eat dairy products or fortified foods, the easiest way to get vitamin D is by exposing your skin to sunshine – just a few short minutes a day without sunblock is enough to produce your body’s daily requirement of vitamin D, according to Roselle. In the summer, she says, the safest times to catch those rays are before 10 a.m. or after 3:30 p.m.
Another alternative Roselle recommends is cod liver oil: 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon per day. This age-old compound contains a unique combination of essential fats with vitamins A and D that support your whole body, with extra benefits for your bones. But you don’t have to spoon it in Mary Poppins-style – try cod liver oil in pearls or caps!
Roselle’s nutrition solution is simple: eat a healthy balance of many different good-for-you foods. “There’s no one magic food,” she concludes. “All foods have ‘magic’ if we get enough variety and a balanced diet. The more food variety in your diet, the easier you’ll get all the nutrients you need.”
And Roselle stresses the importance of a good diet over supplement use. “Supplements make up a lack after a good diet, not the other way around,” she says.
Along with calcium and vitamin D, magnesium and other trace minerals are important for building bone and can’t be obtained simply by taking a supplement. Magnesium helps the calcium go to your bones instead of your kidneys, where calcium can cause kidney stones. Calcium supplements don’t usually contain magnesium, so eat nuts, whole grain products or fortified cereal to get it. People with nut allergy can substitute sunflower or pumpkin seeds.
Get Up and Get Moving!
A good diet is only half of the bone-building equation: You need exercise too! According to Stacy Eichwald King, a physical therapist and personal trainer in the Washington, DC, area, bones, like muscles, become stronger with exercise.
Lack of exercise can subtract bone mass. According to Roselle, a person starts to lose bone density just 24 hours after becoming bedridden. While that may sound extreme, it points to the dangers of an inactive lifestyle. So if your teen is always on the sidelines due to asthma or allergy symptoms, he could be slowly losing bone mass.
Sixty minutes of exercise per day is the current recommendation for children and teens (30 minutes per day for adults), according to “Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Surgeon General’s Report.” Both children and adults tend to fall short of this goal. The report shows that “only half of all teens exercise vigorously on a regular basis, and one-fourth do not exercise at all . . . . Teens who miss adding bone mass to their skeletons during these critical years never make it up.”
More is better when it comes to teen bone-building. According to National Osteoporosis Foundation Clinical Director Felicia Cosman, MD, “The higher the peak level (of bone mass), the better . . . . Allow for some extra bone tissue in the bone bank.” She says most kids aren’t hitting exercise benchmarks simply through sports programs. She advises, “Parents need to step in and make sure kids get on their feet and exercise regularly.” Cosman also suggests pediatricians play a more active role in educating parents and children on the importance of exercise.
An overlooked but easy and effective exercise for all age groups is walking, according to King. Walking works all muscles by carrying body weight and working against the pull of gravity, and almost anyone can do it.
Plan for Health
Roselle, King and Cosman all agree on the importance of eating healthy food and getting physical activity every day, regardless of age. “The key message here,” says Cosman, “is that our society is not doing what is recommended in the area of diet and exercise.” Adds Roselle, “Our bodies are designed to be in motion – this is true no matter what your age!”
If your child has asthma, allergies or food allergies, you may need to take extra steps to help them achieve their exercise and nutrition goals. Work with your teen on a wish list of activities he’d like to do, then work with his medical care team on how to make those wishes a reality. His asthma or allergy management plan is a living document that you should review with his doctor and revise as often as needed.
Food allergies shouldn’t deprive your teen of the energy he needs to be active and the essential nutrients he needs to build strong bones. Consult a certified nutritionist or registered dietician to make sure your teen’s daily diet is well rounded.
If you have special concerns about your teen’s current bone density level, talk to his doctor about a bone density screening test, which measures the amount of mineral in the bones.
Then get the whole family in on the bone-building act! Building strong bones now – and good health habits – will benefit your teen and your whole family for your lifetimes.
Weight-Bearing Exercise for Kids and Teens
Exercise helps build bone mass, and weight-bearing exercise is particularly helpful in this task. Weight-bearing exercise includes any activity in which your feet and legs carry your own weight. You can
- Jump rope
- Climb stairs
- Play tennis, racquetball, soccer, basketball, field hockey, volleyball, softball or baseball
Source: NICHD 2004
Written by: Maurine Hedlund, a freelance writer and copy editor in Alexandria, VA She is a journalist by education and an experienced writer for nonprofits and volunteer organizations. When not exploring local culture with her husband, John, and their daughter, Eliza, she is an active volunteer and advocate for women’s issues.
First published: Allergy & Asthma Today, Spring 2007
Updated: February 2009