For the first time in his 14 years, my oldest son brought home the bacon with two paid summer jobs. Boy, did he relish the reward of the paycheck. He has always spent whatever money he acquired through birthdays or allowance on the newest baseball glove, the hottest pair of basketball shoes or, dare I say it, candy. But this summer, he said there was something about devoting long days to work that made him want to save his pennies.
At the same time, he hit a growth spurt, and comparable to how the paycheck changed his perspective on money, his rapid growth altered his perspective on health. He is much more interested in what will keep him on this upward trajectory. He used to eat without thinking, but now he is making the food-health connection when he chooses what to eat.
While experiencing some pretty intense growing pains, he asked about his bones. I explained that although bones appear to be hard and static, they are made of living tissue that is constantly changing. Little pieces of older bone are continually being replaced by newer, healthier bone. His bones are kind of like that bank account he has been building with paycheck deposits; throughout his childhood and adolescence, he will deposit healthy tissue into his bones. Skeletal development peaks in the 20s, so ideally he should make as many nutritional deposits as he can now to build a strong skeleton for adulthood.
In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, osteoporosis has been called “ ‘a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences,’ because the bone mass attained in childhood and adolescence is an important determinant of lifelong skeletal health. The health habits your kids are forming now can make, or literally break, their bones as they age.”
Bones are made of the minerals calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and potassium, as well as vitamins D and K. Calcium is your body’s most abundant mineral, with 99 percent found in your bones and teeth, and the all-important vitamin D helps your bones and teeth absorb it. In fact, studies show that only 10 to 15 percent of the calcium in food is absorbed without vitamin D. Zinc regulates a hormone that supports bone growth, and vitamin K (found in leafy green vegetables) activates proteins that deposit calcium into your bones and teeth while keeping it out of places it doesn’t belong.
Although the milk mustache has led many of us to believe that milk is the magic bullet of bone health, there are better ways to build bones. Cow’s milk is a good source of calcium and is often fortified with vitamin D, yet milk has downsides for some people. A large portion of the world is lactose intolerant, which can cause digestive distress, and others who consume milk experience consequences such as acne.
Instead of dairy, try alternative sources of bone-building nutrients. Leafy greens such as spinach and kale are good options, as well as broccoli, artichokes and other green vegetables. Nuts and seeds provide calcium and zinc. Homemade bone broth is a flawless bone-building food. Beans such as chickpeas, navy beans and edamame are a great source of calcium. Blackstrap molasses, delicious in oatmeal, makes a bone-healthy breakfast. Salmon, sardines and other oily fish are good foods for bones because they help reduce inflammation while also providing vitamin D and other nutrients. Inflammation can strip minerals such as calcium from the bones, weakening them.
Weight-bearing exercise such as running, hiking and lifting weights support bone growth and strength, so keep those kids on the move. Children shouldn’t require a calcium supplement, as bone health is a balance of minerals and vitamins, not just large amounts of calcium. Too much of one nutrient confuses the body, causing it to not use other nutrients beneficially. Most calcium gummies are full of sugar, anyway.
My son did not break the bank with his earnings, but he did open a fund for the Jeep Wrangler of his dreams. And perhaps now that he is paying more attention to his growth, he will deposit a similar amount of nutrients into his bones. Both seem like pretty good investments.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, September 7, 2017.