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Healthy adult life starts with childhood calcium

Calcium is one of the most important and valuable elements in the human body. Adequate amounts of this mineral in youngsters' diets are vital if they are to build strong bones and teeth.

Plenty of calcium in the first decade of life will make our kids more resistant to the bone fractures from osteoporosis when they get older. Osteoporosis is a crippling bone disease in which there is a gradual thinning of the bone core. It affects more than 20-million Americans.

Ninety-nine percent of a child's calcium is stored in his bones and teeth. The remaining 1 percent is in blood and is essential for life and health. Without this tiny 1 percent of calcium, muscles would not contract correctly, blood would not clot, absorption of minerals would be impaired, and nerves would not carry messages properly.

Kids need calcium throughout their lives, but especially during their two major growth spurts. The first starts in infancy and lasts through toddlerhood. The second begins at puberty.

"It is extremely important that our children have enough calcium to build strong bones and to lay in a supply of calcium for later years," said Therese O'Flaherty, pediatric dietitian at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati.

Yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics says today's children and adolescents are not getting enough calcium. In a policy statement issued in November 1999, the academy urged its member physicians to "actively support the goal of achieving optional calcium intake in children and adolescents."

Children up to 3 years old need 800 milligrams of calcium per day. Parents of toddlers are faced with a unique problem: how to get the minimum amount of calcium into a youngster with the picky appetite most toddlers have.

During the toddler years, a child's appetite plummets as growth slows. To ensure that their child is getting enough calcium, parents must look for the words "high in calcium," "rich in calcium" or "an excellent source of calcium" on the milk and foods they buy.

According to food labeling laws, these words guarantee that each serving provides at least 200 mg of calcium. Those labeled a "good source of calcium" will provide 100 to 189 mg per serving.

Dairy products are by far the easiest way for a child to get calcium. It's in milk, cheese, ice cream and yogurt, which are fortified with vitamin D, helping the absorption of calcium. Green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and collard greens, supply some calcium. Unfortunately, most toddlers will not be interested in vegetables.

To boost calcium intake, parents should stock their shelves with calcium-fortified milk, cereal, breads and rice products, and calcium-enriched orange and apple juice. For children who are lactose-intolerant or allergic to milk, there are alternatives. Parents can continue to use formulas that do not contain lactose or have their child take Tums, which has calcium carbonate, or a chewy calcium supplement such as Viactiv with a meal. As children develop more varied tastes, parents can explore other sources of calcium, such as tofu and canned salmon with bones.

As long as their youngsters are not allergic to milk or intolerant to lactose, parents can also try to incorporate more calcium into their children's diets by:

Making custard, pudding, rice pudding, bread pudding or pumpkin custard with milk.

Adding milk to cooked cereal, soups and gravies.

Making a "smoothie" with milk and fruit.

Adding powdered milk to ground beef for juicier burgers and to casseroles for a creamier base.

Adding flavorings to milk such as strawberry, chocolate or soft drink powders. Make eggnog, cocoa and milkshakes.

Bruce A. Epstein practiced pediatrics in St. Petersburg for 26 years. He edits the Web site