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Melissa Little
Msc RD, Pediatric and Antenatal Dietician. She is a spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association on TV and in print. Member of the parliamentary group for a Fit and Healthy Childhood at Westminster for the UK Government.
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Teenage care & health

10 top tips to improving bone health in teenagers

It is really important that teenagers eat adequate amounts of absorbable calcium during puberty when their bones and skeleton are going through growth spurts.
In Short
Dairy products are our main source of calcium that helps strengthen bones and teeth.

By the age of 20 to 25, human skeletons are no longer able to build additional bone mass, they only maintain what they already have.  Therefore, it is especially important throughout childhood and adolescence to consume sufficient dairy products to build the bone stores needed later in life. This builds strength and helps protect against osteoporosis.

Teenage boys need 3 portions of dairy a day and teenage girls need 2 portions of dairy a day.

A large percentage of teenagers are not meeting their dairy intake needs. Did you also know that osteoporosis, a disease causing weak and brittle bones effecting almost half the elderly population, is completely preventable through exercise and adequate dairy consumption in youth? Unfortunately, most teens don’t know the quantity of dairy products they need or just how important it is for their health.

Factors affecting bone mass

Peak bone mass is influenced by some factors that your teenager can’t change e.g., gender and race and some that he can, e.g., nutrition and physical activity.


Bone mass tends to be higher in men than in women. Before puberty, both boys and girls develop bone mass at similar rates. During and after puberty, boys begin to accumulate greater bone mass than girls.

Ethnic group

In the USA, African American girls tend to achieve higher peak bone mass than Caucasian girls, and African American women are at lower risk for osteoporosis later in life. However, because all women are at risk for osteoporosis, all teenage girls need to build as much bone mass as possible during puberty.


Sex hormones, such as oestrogen and testosterone, are essential for the development of bone growth and bone mass. Girls who start their periods earlier tend to have greater bone density. Girls who miss their period (e.g., if they are underweight) tend to have lower bone density.


Calcium is an essential nutrient for bone health, especially during puberty. A well-balanced diet including adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and vitamin D is also important as they are all needed for optimal calcium absorption and bone growth. See tips on eating a calcium rich diet below.

Physical activity

Physical activity is important for building healthy bones. Astronauts in zero gravity lose bone density very quickly as their bones are not bearing any weight. Exercise is really beneficial in the weight-bearing areas of the skeleton such as the pelvis, and the arms of tennis players and weight lifters. Indeed, if you look at the arm of a professional tennis player you will see that their playing arm is much thicker than their other arm and this is in part, down to bone mass.

Why is dairy important to teenagers?

Dairy products are our main source of calcium, a nutrient that helps strengthen bones and teeth. Calcium deficiencies can lead to osteoporosis, a disease characterized by weak bones, which increases the risk of bone fractures later in life. However, calcium is most important when our bones are still growing.

Building your children’s “bone bank” account is a lot like saving for their education: The more they can put away when they’re young, the longer it should last as they get older.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institute of Health, USA.

By the age of 20 to 25, our bodies are no longer able to build additional bone mass, they only maintain what they already have. Therefore, it is especially important throughout childhood and adolescence to consume sufficient dairy products to build the bone stores needed later in life.

How much calcium does a teenager need?

Current guidelines recommend that:

  • Teenagers consume around 1,300mg of calcium per day (the equivalent of approximately 4-5 portions of dairy).

A portion of dairy can be any of the following:

  • 200ml of milk.
  • 30g of cheese (about the size of a matchbox).
  • 1 small pot of yogurt.
  • 250ml of calcium-fortified soy milk.
What if my teenager is a vegan or can’t drink milk?

While the above dairy products are the primary sources of calcium you can also take in small amounts from other foods such as green vegetables, nuts, and fish. Many non-dairy milks can also contain added calcium – such as soy, rice and almond milk.

Will dairy foods make my teenager gain weight?

While high-fat dairy options such as cream, whole milk, and full-fat cheese contain high levels of fat, a 200ml serving of skimmed milk provides only 69kcal and 0.2g of fat. Fat-free, sugar-free yogurt also fits the bill for healthy snacks providing less than 100kcal and no fat or sugar. This means milk products can play a role in all diets.

Top ten tips for increasing your teenager’s calcium intake

Here are some simple tips to help teenagers get adequate calcium.

  • Better Breakfasts. Choose cereal, porridge or a fruit smoothie for an extra portion of milk in the mornings.
  • Become great at grating. Grate cheese on to casseroles, pasta or soups for an added calcium kick.
  • Serve up Soup. Milk based soups and sauces are a great source of added dairy.
  • Go Nutty. Almonds and Brazil Nuts are a good source of calcium, just remember to buy “natural” and stick to a handful.
  • Snack Smarter. Yogurt and cottage cheese make great healthy snacks – add fresh fruit for even more nutrients.
  • Go Green. Green leafy vegetables contain some calcium so serve up spinach or kale as a healthy side dish.
  • Pep up pasta. Add soft cheeses such as feta or ricotta to your teenager’s pasta dish to pep up the calcium and the taste.
  • Tea Time. Adding milk to coffee or tea can increase intake of calcium.
  • Eat fish. Sardines in tomato sauce are an excellent source of calcium as well as a good source of healthy fat.
  • Try Tofu. Tofu is a great source of calcium – try adding it your teenager’s stir-fry or blending it into a smoothie.

Share the knowledge
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.