We’ve all seen those commercials sponsored by the dairy industry, showing a little guy drinking milk and growing into a strapping teen-age athlete. And more recently, we’ve seen commercials featuring attractive stars of the movies or the basketball court wearing white milk moustaches.
Why do we need to advertise milk?

Well, it turns out that in the United States, the richest nation on earth, children are not getting as much daily calcium as they need. Studies in the past 10 to 15 years have alarmed pediatricians and nutritionists. The reason? Because a huge percentage of youngsters have a diet that is inadequate in calcium, probably because children today drink more cola, juices and other beverages than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

Infants usually get plenty of calcium. The recommended daily allowance of calcium for infants, 400 milligrams daily, is easily provided by breast milk and milk-based and soy-based infant formulas. And most preschoolers and young school-age children are able to get the recommended 800 milligrams of calcium daily. But as much as 60 percent of kids aged 6 to 11 don’t get the calcium they need — and as much as 85 percent of teen-agers, especially girls, do not get the 1,300 milligrams of calcium they need daily.

Calcium is necessary, commercials tell us, for children to build strong bones and teeth. Calcium is also needed for the heart, muscles and nerves to function efficiently. We know that for many older adults, especially women past menopause, osteoporosis, or thin bones, is a very serious health problem that can lead to disabling fractures of the hip and other bones, curvature of the spine, and loss of height. And we also know that many older women with the strongest bones — the highest bone density — drank milk at every meal during childhood and adolescence.

For both boys and girls, the teen-age years are the time when the most calcium is laid down in growing bones — calcium that must last a lifetime, especially after menopause. Milk and dairy products are excellent sources of calcium: each 8-ounce serving of milk or yogurt provides about 250 to 300 milligrams of calcium. Probably the only foods that are better sources of calcium are sardines with bones, and canned salmon, which includes little round, chewable vertebral bones.

The recommendation is for older children and adolescents to have dairy products — milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, cream cheese, ice cream, frozen yogurt — four or five times a day.

Kids ages 1 through 10 need 800 milligrams, and 1,300 milligrams is the recommended allowance for those 11 and older. And getting at least a few minutes of sunlight on the face and hands each day, to get the “sunshine vitamin” D, will help them absorb calcium from food and to store it in their bones. The dairy products that are rich in calcium are also terrific sources of protein for growing muscles.

If you believe your child is lactose-intolerant or there are other reasons he or she should avoid dairy products, talk with your doctor about ways to ensure they get enough calcium. The doctor may recommend calcium tablets for older children, or chewable calcium-containing antacid tablets, each of which can provide about 250 to 300 milligrams of calcium. Make sure your kids get enough calcium — so those growing bones are still strong when the kids are grandparents.