Getting Enough Calcium

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Getting Enough Calcium

Mental Health
Growth and Nutrition
Getting Enough Calcium
Getting Enough Calcium
Discover how to ensure your child gets enough calcium.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Getting Enough Calcium

It is important that all children get enough calcium, a mineral that is essential for building strong bones, teeth and other parts of our skeleton. Without enough calcium during childhood and early adulthood, children will not grow well, and their bones may end up being thin and weak later in life (osteoporosis). This can result in a higher risk of bone fractures.

How much calcium should your child get? The amount of calcium in the diet that is necessary for optimal growth and lifelong strong bones depends on many factors, including age, sex, ethnic background and other foods in the diet. To be sure that the right amount of calcium is taken each day, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine published the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) values, which used to be known as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). These numbers are helpful more as a reference than as an exact amount for everyone. In fact, some experts think children should actually be getting even higher amounts of calcium to reach maximum bone density.

Age DRI for calcium
1 to 3 years 700 milligrams per day (mg/day)
4 to 8 years 1,000 mg/day
9 to 18 years 1,300 mg/day
19 to 50 years 1,000 mg/day

Unfortunately, most children do NOT get enough calcium each day. Toddlers generally do because most of them drink at least 2 glasses of milk a day and get 300 milligrams of calcium with each 8-ounce glass. However, as children get older and need even more calcium, they tend to drink less milk. Dietary calcium deficiency (not enough calcium in the diet) is a growing concern among American children, particularly adolescents. Studies show:

  • Only about 1 in 10 girls and 1 in 4 boys between ages 9 and 17 years get enough calcium in their diet.
  • The average calcium intake for teen-aged females is only about half the recommended amount.
  • One of every two teen-agers drinks no milk, while the amount of soda that teens drink has doubled.

To make matters worse, some children eat certain foods that interfere with calcium absorption. This may decrease bone strength and thickness. Diets that are low in calcium and high in protein, caffeine (found in coffee, tea, some sodas and chocolate), phosphorous (found in most foods, but especially meat and soda), or sodium (salt), are unhealthy for bones. Anyone who diets or fasts for long periods also can end up with decreased bone density.

The best sources of calcium are calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products. However, calcium also is found naturally in many nondairy foods or added to other foods, such as some brands of juice, cereal, bread, vegetables, soy foods and canned fish. Although children (and adults) may limit their intake of dairy products because they are concerned about dietary fat intake, reduced-fat and even nonfat forms are available that contain as much (and sometimes more) calcium as the higher-fat forms. Foods that are good sources of calcium include:

Food Serving size Calcium content
Yogurt, plain, low-fat or nonfat 1 cup 350-450 milligrams (mg)
Yogurt, flavored, low-fat or nonfat 1 cup 250-450 mg
Milk, skim, low-fat, or whole 1 cup 300 mg
Orange juice with added calcium 1 cup 300 mg
Soy milk with added calcium 1 cup 300 mg
Cheese, natural 1 ounce 300 mg
Cheese, processed 1 slice (0.75 to 1 ounce) 100-300 mg
Tofu, processed with calcium one-half cup (4 ounces) 250 mg
Sardines, canned 1 can (3.75 ounces) 200-250 mg
Cottage cheese, low-fat 1 cup 150 mg
Yogurt, frozen, low-fat one-half cup 100-200 mg
Collard greens*, cooked one-half cup 150 mg
Spinach*, cooked one-half cup 100 mg
Ice cream one-half cup 100 mg
Almonds, dry roasted one-quarter cup (4 tbsp) 100 mg
Milk, dry nonfat milk powder 1 tbsp

*While these and related vegetables contain calcium, they also contain other compounds, such as oxalate and phytate, that make the calcium less easily absorbed by the body.

Learn how to read food labels to get specific information on the calcium content of a particular food. Food labels are required to list calcium content as a percentage of the DRI, rather than in milligrams. This percentage is based on the DRI for adults (ages 19 to 50 years), which is 1,000 milligrams. To calculate the number of milligrams of calcium in one serving, simply multiply the percentage by 10. For example, if a food label says that 1 cup of yogurt supplies 35 percent of the DRI of calcium (1,000 milligrams), it contains 350 milligrams (35 times 10).

With careful planning, most school-aged children can easily get enough calcium in their usual daily diets. If it is not possible to get enough calcium in a regular diet, ask your child's doctor about calcium supplements.

Last updated August 19, 2014

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