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Ann Nutr Metab. 2014;64 Suppl 2:15-22. doi: 10.1159/000365124. Epub 2014 Oct 22.

Calcium and vitamin D metabolism in children in developing countries.

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MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.


Low dietary calcium intakes and poor vitamin D status are common findings in children living in developing countries. Despite many of the countries lying within the tropics and subtropics, overcrowding, atmospheric pollution, a lack of vitamin D-fortified foods, and social customs that limit skin exposure to sunlight are major factors in the development of vitamin D deficiency. Low dietary calcium intakes are typically observed as a consequence of a diet limited in dairy products and high in phytates and oxalates which reduce calcium bioavailability. Calcium intakes of many children are a third to a half of the recommended intakes for children living in developed countries, yet the consequences of these low intakes are poorly understood as there is limited research in this area. It appears that the body adapts very adequately to these low intakes through reducing renal calcium excretion and increasing fractional intestinal absorption. However, severe deficiencies of either calcium or vitamin D can result in nutritional rickets, and low dietary calcium intakes in association with vitamin D insufficiency act synergistically to exacerbate the development of rickets. Calcium supplementation in children from developing countries slightly increases bone mass, but the benefit is usually lost on withdrawal of the supplement. It is suggested that the major effect of calcium supplementation is on reducing the bone remodelling space rather than structurally increasing bone size or volumetric bone density. Limited evidence from one study raises concerns about the use of calcium supplements in children on habitually low calcium intakes as the previously supplemented group went through puberty earlier and had a final height several centimetres shorter than the controls.

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