Our bones play very important roles in general movement, posture and protecting vital organs. As we get older and suffer from joint and movement pain, bone fractures and osteoporosis we often wonder “why, oh why did I not look after my bones?” A crucial period to influence bone strength and avoid all these problems is in the early stages of growing up when bones are still developing. Let’s take a look at the stages of bone development; you may discover it’s not as simple as drinking lots of milk or simply worrying about calcium intake.
Growth and development in the early years of childhood is an important stage which can have a significant impact on our health and well-being as adults. From birth to 5 years of age, we more than double in height. Although not as dramatic, growth continues until we reach the end of puberty (15-19 years for females; 16-21 for males). Coinciding with our height increase is the growth of our bones, which stop growing at the end of puberty. Whilst bones are growing, it is the only stage we are able to strengthen our bones. From birth to the start of puberty, bone mass can increase up to 7 times. Once bones stop growing, they reach their peak bone mass, which means they are as strong as they will ever be. This remains steady for the next 20 years, before the natural aging process causes a decline in bone strength. In many individuals, the bone strength becomes so low, they develop osteoporosis. Thus the early years of childhood are our only chance to influence how strong our bones will be. The peak bone mass (strength of bones) will differ for each individual depending on how well they optimized their bone growth during childhood. Strong bones are vital for general growth and basic movements, enhancing coordination, agility and good posture. Building strong bones can also reduce the risk of fractures, teeth cavities and osteoporosis. So how can one optimize their bone strength by reaching a high peak bone mass?
Our biggest growth spurt occurs in the first 5 years of life. Our growth rate then remains fairly steady until we stop growing.
Peak bone mass varies between individuals because it is dependent on nutrient intake and the building of bone mass during the first 20 years of life
How to assist strong growing bones
The formation and structure of bone requires many essential nutrients. While calcium is the most well known, there are many other vitamins and minerals that are required for healthy bone growth. Calcium along with phosphorus are minerals which is essentially what forms and makes bone tissue. Around 99% of calcium and 85% of phosphorus found in your body is located in your bones. However, to absorb these minerals from your diet and then transfer them to the bones, the body needs vitamin D. Vitamin K and magnesium also assist in this process. To form and strengthen bones, the body also needs zinc, vitamin C, manganese, folic acid and vitamin B6. If a child receives sufficient levels of these nutrients, their bones will be strong. However, if they are even marginally deficient in just one of these nutrients (not just calcium), it can result in a low peak bone mass, leaving bones weak, brittle and more prone to breakage. In addition, basic movements and posture can be affected as well as an increase risk of tooth cavities and osteoporosis. Really poor bone growth can also lead to bone deformities. The financial burden (hospital, dentist and chiropractor visits) from having weak bones can also be a strain.
How to obtain these nutrients
The nutrients required for bone growth can be obtained largely in green vegetables and dairy. However, it is very difficult to get children (particularly under the age of 5) to eat large enough portions of these food groups to obtain enough nutrients to optimize bone growth. There is a global increase in childhood obesity, suggesting today’s children are consuming diets rich in calories and fats and poor in nutrient quality. In addition, nutrient levels are significantly reduced (up to 80%) during food processing, preparation and cooking or when flavours are added so children will actually enjoy the food! To make matters worse, consuming protein-rich sources of calcium such as milk and whey-protein based formulas significantly reduce the amount of calcium that is actually absorbed due to its interaction with protein. In some countries there are also fears of contamination with dairy and meat products, placing more pressure on parents providing their child with a balanced diet. So what is a solution? There is no cause to panic. Simply provide a balance of nutrient sources through; green vegetables, fruit, nuts and meat and a variety of dairy products, not just relying on a few glasses of milk every day. When possible, introduce lightly steamed vegetables and avoid frying every meal they have. If you are still concerned about their nutrient intake, supplements containing calcium combined with the other important nutrients for bone health can assist you.
- Kerstetter, J.E., K.O. O’Brien, and K.L. Insogna, ‘Low protein intake: the impact on calcium and bone homeostasis in humans’. J Nutr, 2003. 133(3): p. 855S-861S.
- National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC), ‘Nutrient reference values for Australia and
- New Zealand: Including recommended dietary intakes’ (Report) 2006.
Peacock, M., Calcium absorption efficiency and calcium requirements in children and adolescents. Am J Clin Nutr, 1991. 54(1 Suppl): p. 261S-265S
- World Health Organization (WHO), “Population-based prevention strategies for childhood obesity: report of a WHO forum and technical meeting, Geneva, 15–17 December 2009.” 2010
- World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO Multicentre Growth Reference Study (MGRS) 1997-2003.