By Tim Johnson
Most of us remember when life as a kid didn’t get any better than some cookies and a tall, cold glass of milk. But Susan Mitchell just doesn’t see that same love of milk in her son, Dillon, 7. “If he was given the choice between milk, juice or water, he would probably choose juice or water,” says the mom of two from Duchess, Alta. “When I was a kid, milk was the drink to have. But it’s not like that for Dillon.”
And milk’s drop in popularity definitely goes beyond the Mitchell home. Statistics Canada reports that in 2008 Canadians drank 12 percent less milk than they did in 1988 (57.7 litres versus 70). Dr. Karen McAssey, a pediatrician and director of the Pediatric Calcium and Bone Disorders Clinic at the McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., observes that among kids the drop has been even more dramatic, estimating from her own experience that kids are consuming perhaps half (or even less) the amount of milk that they did 20 years ago.
Reasons behind the decline include an increase in allergies and intolerances, increased consumption of juice and pop plus a shift in tastes and preferences. And that’s a problem because calcium is essential for healthy development, and milk remains one of the most effective calcium delivery systems around. “Milk is an important part of a child’s diet,” notes Dr. McAssey.
Calcium is key for kids between the ages of six and eight, serving as an essential ingredient in the development of strong and healthy bones and teeth. It’s also important for a number of other internal processes, including the operation of our muscles, nervous system and heart, meaning that extremely low levels of calcium can actually be life threatening. Kids this age need about 800 milligrams of calcium daily, notes Dr. McAssey. She adds that you should also ensure that your child is receiving enough vitamin D (400 IU) daily, which is the key element in calcium absorption — this is most often supplied by simple sunshine but can also be found in fortified milk or in supplement form.
A cup of milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium, so the easiest way to get the recommended amount of calcium into your kids is by simply serving them a cup of milk at each meal. “By doing that, you can very adequately cover the recommended intake,” says Dr. McAssey. But it doesn’t have to be cow’s milk. If taste is the issue, soy, rice and almond milk all offer their own unique flavour (and the same amount of calcium), and each of these is acceptable for vegan diets. And (gasp!) chocolate milk is also a good option, containing just as much calcium as white milk (but more sugar).
But dairy, of course, isn’t the only way to get calcium. While she admits that these foods aren’t always winners with kids, Dr. McAssey observes that calcium is also contained in a broad variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes, including cooked broccoli, Brussels sprouts, fresh oranges, dried figs, chickpeas and kidney beans. You can also turn to calcium-fortified orange juice, and supplements provide an option if dietary sources fail. Mitchell makes sure that her kids eat a well-rounded diet that includes plenty of yogurt, salmon, broccoli and other foods that are high in calcium and she keeps an eye out for muscle issues such as cramps and eye twitching — warning signs that they may not be getting enough.
Dr. McAssey adds that parents shouldn’t worry too much — finding adequate sources of calcium can be a lot easier than it sounds. “When you go through the list, you can usually pinpoint several foods that your children will enjoy,” she says. “Setting good expectations and guidelines for them at this age will have long-standing benefits into their teenage years and adulthood.”