Teenagers may think they're just a short jump from adulthood, but physically speaking, their bodies have a lot more growing to do. Getting adequate calcium not only supports the growth spurts that a teen is experiencing, it helps prevent osteoporosis and bone loss later in life. Unfortunately, many teens don't get enough calcium during their day, and that puts them at risk for problems in both the short and long term.
Calcium Needs for Teens
Teenage boys need about 1300 mg of calcium per day for optimal health, according to child development experts at the Teens Health website. That works out to about four servings of calcium-rich foods a day. Teen girls also need 1300 mg of calcium a day. However, only about one in 10 teen girls gets enough calcium in her diet; only one in four boys manages the same.
Calcium Sources: Dairy
Dairy products are a source of dietary calcium. Four glasses of milk a day is enough to provide a teen's daily calcium needs -- each 8-ounce glass of milk has about 300 mg of calcium. Milk isn't the only calcium-rich dairy product worth adding to a teen's diet, however. One cup of plain yogurt has 450 mg of calcium; serve it in a smoothie or for breakfast or snack topped with fruit or granola. Cottage cheese and ricotta are also rich in calcium. Other cheeses -- and yes, even cheese pizza -- can also make a sizable calcium contribution to a teen's daily diet.
Calcium Sources: Non-Dairy
If your teenager is lactose-intolerant, has chosen to follow a vegan diet or just doesn't like all that dairy day in and day out, remember that there are plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium, too. Calcium-fortified breakfast cereal, breads and orange juice abound; check the labels for exactly how much of this important element they deliver. If your teen will eat canned sardines or canned salmon, they are excellent sources of dietary calcium. Soy milk and other soy products, including tofu and edamame, are also rich in calcium. So are other beans -- think white beans, black beans, pinto beans, baked beans, chili with beans. Broccoli and dark leafy greens can help your teen meet his daily calcium requirement. Even a handful of almonds provides a decent calcium dose.
The Importance of Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps promote the absorption of calcium, so make sure your teen is getting enough of this nutrient as well. Fortunately, many foods rich in calcium are also good sources of vitamin D -- milk, canned sardines and salmon and fortified orange juice and cereal, for example. Other sources include eggs and tuna fish. Vegetarians and vegans have to work a little harder to get enough D in their diets, but the skin can actually synthesize vitamin D from the sun, and a teenager only needs five to 30 minutes in the sun twice a week to generate an adequate dose of this nutrient.
Teenagers can also take a calcium supplement -- preferably paired with vitamin D -- to help ensure that they get an adequate supply of it. Supplemental calcium comes in two main forms, calcium carbonate and calcium citrate; the former is cheaper but the latter is more easily absorbed by the body. Teens don't need more than 500 mg at a time in supplement form, as any excess will simply wash out of the body. If 500 mg a day isn't enough, your teen should space her doses out over the course of a day.