Bone Development in Young People

It’s never too early for children to learn about bone health. Childhood is a person’s peak bone producing years, so it’s vitally important young people know how to build strong bones. Developing good dietary and exercise habits when young will help children to have strong, healthy bones throughout their lives.

In girls, the bone tissue accumulated during the ages of 11 to 13 approximately equals the amount lost during the 30 years following menopause.

In fact, it’s estimated a 10% increase of peak bone mass in all children reduces the risk of an osteoporotic fracture during adult life by 50 %.  

Inversely, poor diet and lack of exercise, especially between the ages of 10 to 18, can result in weaker bones in adulthood.

Several lifestyle factors, particularly nutrition, physical activity, and safe sun exposure can substantially influence the gain of bone mass during childhood and adolescence.

Educate your children about:

  • An adequate calcium intake which meets the relevant dietary recommendations in the region where you live
  • Avoiding protein malnutrition and under-nutrition, particularly the effects of unhealthy weight-loss diets and eating disorders.
  • Maintaining an adequate supply of vitamin D through sufficient exposure to the sun and diet.
  • Participating in regular physical activity to build strong bones. One study has shown physically active young girls gain about 40% more bone mass than inactive girls of the same age.
  • Avoiding smoking and second-hand smoking.
  • Knowing the damage high alcohol consumption does to your bones.

Read the International Osteoporosis Foundation report Invest in Your Bones: How diet, life styles and genetics affect bone development in young people.

Body weight and bone health

The pursuit of a waif-like body-image idealized in fashion magazines can have a devastating effect on bone health. Excessive skinniness in adolescence leads to a low peak bone mass. Besides being of debatable aesthetics, an obsession with thinness can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia which in turn damage a girl's skeleton.

Role of nutrition

In addition to calcium, protein plays a key role in bone mass acquisition. During growth, undernutrition, including insufficient caloric and protein intake, can severely impair bone development.

Low protein intake lowers both the production and action of a growth factor called IGF-1, which enhances bone formation.

In addition, this growth factor stimulates the intestinal absorption of the bone mineral elements, calcium and phosphate, via an increase in the renal production of calcitriol, the hormonal form of vitamin D.

Therefore, during growth and pubertal maturation, an impaired production and action of IGF-1 due to a low protein intake may result in reduced bone development.

This is why we find a positive correlation between protein intake and bone mass gain in children.

Key facts

During puberty, the speed of building up bones in the spine and hip increases by approximately five times.

During growth the gain in bone mineral mass is mainly due to an increase in bone size with very little change in bone density, i.e. in the amount of bone tissue within the bones. Just because a child is growing tall, this does not mean that his or her bone mass is growing at a sufficient rate.

From birth to the onset of the sexual maturation, the bone mineral mass at any given age is the same in girls as in boys.

During puberty bone mass increases more in boys than in girls, mainly due to a more prolonged period of accelerated growth in males, resulting in a larger increase in bone size and thickness of the cortical shell of the bones.

Young children who engage in 40 minutes of normal vigorous activity each day have significantly stronger bones than their less active peers.