Ask the Expert – Meeting Your Child’s Calcium Needs

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on Littlestomaks.com. The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

Calcium is very important for growing children as it helps them build and maintain healthy bones.  This week, Registered Dietitian Karen Kafer talks about calcium requirements for children and different sources of calcium.

Karen Kafer, RD
  • B.S. Oklahoma State University
  • VP Health Partnerships at National Dairy Council
  • Past experience: VP, Communications for Kellogg Company
  • Website: The Dairy Report
  • Contact via email – karen.kafer@rosedmi.com

Question: There are several calcium choices I could provide for my child—which one(s) should I choose?

Answer:

Since children are often picky about what they eat, parents are challenged to find foods kids like that also provide the nutrients they need.  The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommends children consume adequate calcium in their diets.  This means:

  • 500 mg of calcium a day for kids who are 1 to 3 years old;
  • 800 mg of calcium a day for kids who are 4 to 8 years old; and
  • 1,300 mg of calcium a day for kids who are 9 to 18 years old 2 .

To reach these recommended calcium levels, there are several options parents can provide for their children.  Calcium can be found in dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt, vegetables like broccoli, kale and spinach, as well as salmon, red beans and fortified juices and cereals.  However, different calcium sources provide various levels of calcium and also vary in how easily they are absorbed in the body.

To compare, a one cup serving of milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of natural cheddar cheese contains about 300 mg of calcium on average.  However, to obtain the same amount of calcium in one cup of milk, a child would have to eat 10 cups of raw spinach, nearly 4 ¾ cups of canned red kidney beans or 4 ¾ cups of cooked broccoli.  As for foods fortified with calcium, they vary in both their calcium content and quality, so be sure to read food labels to determine how much calcium these products contain.  Check the ingredient section of the food label to determine the type of calcium (such as calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium malate, etc.) used during fortification.

Another option for children is calcium supplements or supplements containing calcium; however, it’s recommended that parents always consult a pediatrician before giving children supplements of any kind.  According to the National Institute of Health, “the two main forms of calcium in supplements are carbonate and citrate. Calcium carbonate is more commonly available and is both inexpensive and convenient. Both the carbonate and citrate forms are similarly well absorbed, but individuals with reduced levels of stomach acid can absorb calcium citrate more easily. Calcium citrate malate is a well-absorbed form of calcium found in some fortified juices. The body absorbs calcium carbonate most efficiently when the supplement is consumed with food, whereas the body can absorb calcium citrate equally effectively when the supplement is taken with or without food.”  Unless a child has a dairy allergy and must avoid dairy, it’s important to remember foods naturally containing calcium, such as milk and milk products, rather than supplements, are the preferred source of calcium for both you and your child.

Vitamin D helps promote the absorption of calcium and enhances bone mineralization.  In fact, a glass of milk fortified with vitamin D provides about 25 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin D, and aids in this calcium absorption and bone mineralization enhancement.  Milk is one of the few dietary sources of this important nutrient so it’s important for children to have their recommended amount of low-fat and fat-free milk and milk products every day.

Resources:

Milk’s unique nutrient package from National Dairy Council

Calcium content of select foods – USDA national nutrient database for standard reference

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Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on Littlestomaks.com is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by Littlestomaks.com.