Parents' Guide to Building Better Bones: An Interview with PCRM Nutritionist Amy Lanou, Ph.D.
Bones have become big business. Just flip through any magazine or turn on the television, and you'll see scores of products—from jugs of milk to endless supplements—advertised as the easy answer to lifelong bone health.
Recently, physicians and nutritionists at PCRM sorted through the scientific evidence pertaining to healthy bones and, not surprisingly, found that not everything we hear in the media tells the whole story. Fortunately, easy adjustments to your diet and exercise routine are all most of us need to grow sturdy skeletons that will stay strong for life.
Should parents worry about their child's bone development?
Most children develop healthy bones just being the active little people they are. Genetics and hormones related to growth and puberty have a strong influence on bone health, and there are a few nutritional and lifestyle factors parents can encourage to help their children build strong bones.
Is calcium the most important mineral for building strong bones?
Bones are a matrix of collagen, water, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and other minerals. While it is important to replenish calcium from foods in the diet, other factors such as exercise affect bone health as well. For instance, a recent study published in Pediatrics found that inactive teens had lower bone density by age 18 than those who engaged in regular physical activity. The researchers also found that the amount of calcium consumed—from milk or other sources—had no effect on their bone density.
Which foods provide active kids the best nutrients for bone health?
Researchers have found that vitamins C and K, potassium, and magnesium are all vital. These nutrients are found in citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, potatoes, green vegetables such as kale and spinach, beans, soy foods, and many other fruits and vegetables. And the calcium found in some plant foods such as collards and kale is absorbed nearly twice as well as the calcium in milk. You'll also do without the troubling risks of antibiotics and hormones used by dairy farmers, the high fat content of many dairy foods, and the cholesterol we all want to avoid. Calcium-fortified fruit juices and soymilk are tasty and highly concentrated sources as well.
I've heard vitamin D is important for adult bones. Is this true for children as well?
Absolutely. This essential nutrient is produced in the skin when we are outdoors in the sunlight. Just 15 minutes per day is all a child needs. For families who can't get outside regularly, multivitamins or fortified foods will suffice.
Are there any foods kids should avoid?
Yale University researchers looked at hip fracture rates in 16 countries and found that those with the highest meat, fish, egg, and dairy product consumption had the most bone breaks. Animal proteins seem to stimulate bone deterioration and encourage calcium loss. This is one good reason to build meals from healthy vegetarian foods such as pasta primavera, bean and rice burritos, hearty lentil soup, or crisp, colorful salads.
Few parents realize it, but salt, caffeine, and cigarette smoke also cause calcium losses. It makes good parenting sense to learn to flavor foods with fresh herbs and spices instead of salt, to offer water, juice, or soymilk instead of soda, and to strongly discourage smoking.
Does milk really do the body good?
It's never a good idea to rely solely on product advertisements when it comes to making decisions about nutrition. In a 12-year Harvard University study of 78,000 women, those who got the most calcium from dairy products actually broke more bones than the women who got little or no calcium from dairy.
There are other reasons to avoid milk, too. In babies under one year of age, cow's milk has been linked to iron deficiency, colic, and type 1 diabetes. In childhood, allergies to milk and milk products are common. Many children and teens with irritable bowel syndrome, autism, asthma, and sinus and skin allergies improve after they stop drinking cow's milk.
Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, overseeing PCRM's Cancer Project, conducting clinical research, working with cancer foundations, and promoting a vegetarian diet among policymakers, dietitians, and researchers.