Childhood Is Critical For Building Strong Bones

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If you grew up in the 80's and 90's, no doubt you recall the widespread ad campaigns from the dairy industry promoting the virtues of drinking milk. There was the catchy slogan "Milk does a body good." And who can forget those celebrities with milk mustaches?

Now that many people in the "Got milk?" generation are parents, the message may seem newly relevant. Building strong bones in childhood forms the foundation for bone health throughout life.

“Childhood and adolescence are a critical period for the development of strong healthy bones because most bone mass is attained by the end of the second decade of life,” says pediatrician Lo’Rell C. Rudolph, D.O. "Over time, bones can become weaker. As bones become more fragile, the risk of fracture increases. That’s why building good bone health while a person is young is vital."

Think of building bone mass like making deposits in a bank account. You have up to about age 21 to make as many deposits into your bone "bank" as possible, with the years during puberty being some of the most critical to building it up. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says the body reaches "peak bone mass" sometime in your twenties, meaning that your bones are at their most dense and strongest. After that, the ability to take in new deposits slows way down, and your body starts to make withdrawals of calcium instead. This calcium depletion is a natural part of the aging process, and it especially ramps up in women going through menopause.

The more you invest in your child’s bone health now, the longer the "dividends" will pay out. Without that foundation, they are at greater risk for developing osteoporosis, which most people think of as an older person's disease but can affect even young and middle-age adults.

What It Takes To Build Strong Bones

It may be hard to think ahead that far -- you're busy worrying about your child breaking a bone on the playground, not imagining them fracturing a hip as an older adult. But the good news is the recipe for building strong bones includes the same healthy habits doctors recommend to stave off childhood obesity, aid in brain development and lower their risks for all kinds of other diseases and health conditions. According to Dr. Rudolph, a good diet high in calcium and vitamin D, and plenty of exercise are necessary for optimum bone health. Here's why:

  • Calcium: Calcium is the essential mineral for our bone development, and our bodies can't produce it on our own. We need to consume it through our diet. Despite what those ads may lead you to believe, milk isn't the only way to get it, although dairy products are excellent sources. Non-dairy sources of calcium include beans, some nuts and seeds, and leafy green vegetables, explains Dr. Rudolph. Read food labels and choose foods containing 10 percent or more of the daily value (DV) for calcium.
  • Vitamin D: It is important to pair calcium intake with vitamin D because adequate amounts of vitamin D are needed for the body to be able to absorb calcium. One way to obtain enough vitamin D is through sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. (Bonus: Being outside for intervals during these hours also promotes physical activity, Dr. Rudolph notes.) Nutritional sources of vitamin D include fish high in fat, like salmon or tuna, and foods fortified with vitamin D, including dairy products and cereals.
  • Exercise: Muscles grow stronger with use, and so do bones. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one hour of physical activity each day,” Dr. Rudolph says. “In particular, weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jumping, climbing and running help promote bone growth.”

What About Supplements?

Doctors and dietitians recommend food as the primary source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, such as calcium. Consider replacing common foods with high-calcium versions. For example, buy calcium-fortified orange juice instead of regular juice. Choose fortified cereals to help meet daily requirements. 

If you are concerned that your child isn’t getting enough calcium or vitamin D, discuss over-the-counter supplements with your healthcare provider. "Vitamin D and calcium supplements are not bad,” Dr. Rudolph says. “In fact, there are some medical conditions in which supplements are needed. However, nutritional sources are recommended for most kids to promote a healthy lifestyle overall.”

If your teen is interested in a fad diet that cuts out dairy products or other sources of calcium or vitamin D, that can be cause for alarm since those nutrients are vital to bone health during this phase of their development. Talk with them openly about their goals and the risks, and consult with a doctor or dietitian about establishing a healthy eating pattern.


To make an appointment with a Henry Ford pediatrician in your area, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936)

For more advice on raising healthy kids, visit our ParentWell section and subscribe today to receive weekly emails of our latest articles. 

Dr. Lo'rell Rudolph is a pediatrician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Ford Road in Dearborn and Henry Ford Medical Center – Taylor.

Categories: ParentWell