Got research? Camp Calcium celebrates 20 years

June 27, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University's Camp Calcium, the primary source of research for today's calcium guidelines for teens, is celebrating its 20th year.

"The research from this camp has determined the optimal calcium intake - 1,300 milligrams - for healthy bone mass, and this information is used to set calcium requirements for North America and the national recommended dietary guidelines in adolescents," said Connie Weaver, distinguished professor and head of foods and nutrition. "In 20 years, we have learned that women need to consume calcium at a young age to maintain healthy bones as an adult, as well as the role sodium and obesity can play in bone health. Thanks to the 381 young teenage girls and boys who have participated in the 11 camps, we have a tremendous understanding of calcium and bone health."

The camps started 20 years ago when Weaver, who was studying mineral absorption, wanted to know more about calcium in young people and specifically how diet could improve calcium retention. A reunion was held Saturday (June 25) for former campers and workers.

"In the 1980s people were beginning to understand there was a potential link between diet and bone health," Weaver said. "Fortified foods were available for the first time and osteoporosis was just starting to be mentioned in the media as a public health concern. It was a new idea that what you ate as a child could affect your bone health when you were older, and I wanted to measure that impact.

"But how could I? It wasn't feasible for teenagers to eat at home and collect samples on their own, but we could control this in a fun camp format."

The campers live in a residence hall and consume specific foods while spending their time participating in educational and fitness activities. The first camp in 1990 with 14 white girls, ages 12-14, found that females have their peak growth in bone mass at this age. They develop 25 percent of their adult bone mass during these years.

"We compared these campers to the counselors who were ages 19 to 30," Weaver said. "Nobody over the age of 21 was in positive balance for bone mass. They were already losing bone, and the best they could do after that was hold onto the bone they had built by then."

Since then, the camp has grown to include boys, ages 13-15, and Asians, blacks, Hispanics and other races.

Other key findings from the 11 camps are:

* Boys utilize calcium more efficiently than girls, but they still need 1,300 milligrams a day to build bigger bones.

* Blacks utilize calcium more efficiently than whites and build 12 percent stronger skeletons on average.

* Chinese-American boys and girls achieve maximum calcium retention at a lower daily calcium intake than white boys and girls.

* Calcium requirements are influenced by a person's weight. The more obese a child is, the higher their calcium needs. If they don't have enough calcium to grow proportionally larger bones they may be more prone to fractures.

Weaver gives talks around the world about the camp and has been contacted by other researchers who want to replicate the format for their work.

"The project's magnitude of effort, coordination and necessary funding make it difficult to replicate," Weaver said. "It's like having a slumber party with 50 children for three to six weeks in a row."

Today's larger camps, the most recent in 2010, require a staff of 65 to serve as counselors, research associates and technicians. In addition to their controlled diet, campers participate in regular blood and urine analysis as well as bone density scans.

Findings from the camps have appeared in 28 journal articles and 20 book chapters, and the data provides a unique database for other scientists. Graduate students and visiting researchers also have added on research questions to Camp Calcium for their dissertations or publications. The opportunity to learn about science also has inspired some campers to pursue careers in the field, and many coordinate their science fair projects with their camp experience.

Campers also receive a holiday newsletter each year for program updates.

The majority of funding is from the National Institutes of Health, and other sources have included Tate and Lyle, Dairy Management Inc., General Mills, Delavau, and Schwann's Foods. The first funding was from a $50,000 grant from Purdue's College of Agriculture.

"There is nothing like this today for a $50,000 investment," Weaver said. "Camp Calcium has brought in $21 million of continuous external funding."

Weaver, who was recently elected to the Institute of Medicine, is hoping to offer another camp in 2012.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Connie Weaver, 765-494-8237, ?