What your teenagers need to know about bones and diet


We take our bones for granted until something happens, don’t we. They are there to support us. You don’t tend to hear people talk about looking after their bones (except maybe the parents shouting across the children’s playground when their little one is performing a dangerous feat and they are trying to stop them breaking their bones!).

But actually, bones need to be looked after.

Did you know we are born with more bones than we have as adults? The bones fuse so we have fewer bones as adults than we did when we were bone. As a mum, I am very glad that my babies’ skulls were not fully fused and hardened when they were born. They needed to be soft to travel through the birth canal.

Adverts tell us that children need calcium but we often think that is just because they are growing. It is in part but the other side of feeding our bones is that we need to lay down sufficient ‘bone mass’. If we have sufficient bone mass (that’s the density of bones) that helps us have healthy bones into adulthood. Once we reach our ‘peak bone mass’ around our early 20s we have reached the maximum density our bones will get. After that the density reduces. The more mass we can build before, the better, so reducing our risk of osteoporosis in later life.

There are other causes of osteoporosis and other things we can do to protect ourselves such as not smoking, doing load bearing exercise (where we carry weights or our own body weight) and not drinking over the recommended limits. BUT diet is a major risk factor/protector.

How much calcium is needed?

Our children and our teenagers need to be having enough calcium to be able to build a good peak bone mass. They need about 3 portions of dairy or dairy alternatives a day to help do this. A portion is a small pot of low fat yoghurt, 200ml of semi skimmed milk or a small matchbox size piece of cheese. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey many teenagers are not having enough.

What about vegan diets and bone health?

Vegan diets can get enough calcium but they need to be planned. Make sure they get the right number of portions of plant based milk alternatives which are unsweetened and fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine).

Other nutrients needed for bone health

It’s not just calcium bones need. The diet also needs to include the following minerals: magnesium, boron, potassium, silicon, copper and zinc, vitamins B6, B9, B12, C, E and K, as well as protein and fatty acids. A good balanced diet following the Eatwell Guide is recommended with:

  • at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day
  • 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily
  • 3 portions of dairy or dairy alternatives a day
  • a limited amount of unsaturated fats
  • a range of lean proteins including meat, fish, pulses, eggs
  • wholegrain starchy carbohydrates at each meal
  • limiting processed foods including processed meats
  • avoiding added salt and limiting added sugar

What next?

Changing our diets can take time. If you have a teenager, it’s not too late to start giving them a diet with enough calcium. It can take time to help your teenager navigate peer pressure and all the other pressures which act against a balanced diet. Adding further pressure isn’t ideal but opening up the conversation is a good start.

If you would like to have individual support with your teenager’s diet, get in touch. For further general information about bone health check out the Royal Osteoporosis Society

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and is not designed to provide individual dietary advice. It does not replace the support of a medical or nutrition professional.

Published by Aliya Porter

An experienced Registered Nutritionist helping you to live healthily without breaking the bank or chaining you to the kitchen.

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