Parents' Guide to Building Better Bones
with PCRM Nutritionist Amy Lanou, Ph.D.
By Kristine Kieswer
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Booklet for Parents
a more in-depth look at how to ensure healthy bone development, please
request a copy of the Parents' Guide to Building Better Bones,
a new publication from PCRM, by calling 202-686-2210, ext. 306, or