Most children have no problem developing normal healthy bones. In fact, children in Japan, China, and other countries consume much lower levels of calcium than their Australian peers and still develop strong, healthy bones. That’s because the human body is an efficient regulator of bone growth.
Just like our hair, skin, and lungs, bone is a living tissue that is constantly being built, broken down, and made anew. Throughout life, bones are taking up and releasing calcium and other minerals, a cycle that is influenced by a variety of factors, including diet, exercise habits, hormones, genetics, and certain diseases. According to two recent reviews of bone health in childhood, the largest influence on this cycle is genetics, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of the differences, with hormones related to growth and puberty second in importance.
Children generally build bone at a slightly higher pace than they break it down. After adolescence, this cycle begins to shift a little so that bone building and breakdown generally keep pace with each other. Later in life, this bone-remodeling cycle tends to head in the reverse direction—with more bone being broken down than is rebuilt. Of course, the extent of this weakening can range from barely noticeable to a serious condition called osteoporosis, depending on many lifestyle and dietary habits.
The minerals in a child’s skeleton are completely replaced (or recycled) about five times between childhood and her or his 55th birthday. Focusing on those actions that promote bone building and those that decrease bone breakdown will effectively improve bone health.
Promoting Bone Building
Bones are a matrix of collagen (the same material used for building joints and other body tissues), water, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and other minerals. Special cells are responsible for making new bone. Here are the most important steps your child can take to help keep these bone-building cells busy:
- Get moving! Play and exercise every day.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
- Get vitamin D from the sun or from supplements.
- Get calcium from plant foods and fortified products.
Avoiding bone loss
A normal part of the bone-recycling process is the breakdown and release of calcium and other minerals into the bloodstream. These minerals are filtered through the kidneys and lost through the urine. Minimizing this loss is a smart strategy for protecting bones. Here are important steps you and your child can take to avoid excess bone loss:
- Limit salty foods.
- Avoid protein from animal sources.
- Keep children away from smoking.
- Avoid caffeine.
With a few simple guidelines you can build healthy bones in your children!