Do Children Need Milk?
Do Our Kids Really Need Milk?
Are My Kids Drinking Too Much Milk?
Pediatricians have always told us to use whole milk at one year old, switch to 2% after their second birthday, and to limit milk to two to three 8 ounce servings a day. (The pediatrician did say to limit milk to two eight ounce servings a day). After working a few days in the public-school system where my daughter goes to school, I noticed that they are given milk three times a day (if they also stay for the after-school program): at breakfast, lunch, and after school snack. Before I had worked there, I was giving her milk with breakfast at home first, and with dinner, with the mindset of “the more milk, the stronger she’ll be.” Recently, though, as I take a closer look at my own diet, I realized that milk is not all that good for us, and it is certainly not needed in high quantities. That got me thinking—what about the little ones? How much cow’s milk do they need, and do they even need milk at all?
The Argument for Milk
Why do schools, nutritionists, and doctors push milk so much? The idea of children needing lots of milk seems to be even more strongly rooted in older generations. Those who argue in favor of milk suggest that it is a necessary source of vitamins, minerals, and protein, and is essential for strong bones.
Many of us have probably come across “Got Milk” signs and billboards, with celebrities sporting a milk mustache they acquired from downing their daily dose of healthy milk. The “Got Milk” Campaign actually was initiated by dairy farmers promoting their product—milk processors in California agreed to set aside a small percentage of milk sales to be dedicated to the promotion of drinking milk for health benefits. Their website makes an effort to provide scientific evidence that milk is good for you. They cite one study that concludes that “evidence is strong for the role of dairy in meeting daily nutrition recommendations.” The study examines dairy objectively based in its actual nutrient composition, but admits to the conclusions being limited because of “lack of appropriately powered randomized control trials”—in other words, in actual observations of groups of people consuming varying quantities of milk and how their health outcomes compared.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Choose My Plate” program, the nationally recommended U.S. nutrition guidelines, also suggests that you get between 2-3 servings of milk per day. These are the guidelines (along with those from the other food groups) that most U.S. public schools follow. The USDA cites health benefits of milk and dairy products to include first and foremost increased bone health. They claim that foods from the dairy group “provide nutrients that are vital for health and maintenance of your body.” They also note that potassium from milk can maintain a healthy blood pressure, and that vitamin D can help regulate calcium and phosphorous levels. Another claim from their website states that milk intake is especially important for bones during childhood and adolescence.
From a chemist’s standpoint, milk is packed with nutrients. According to the “Got Milk” website, one serving contains 8 times more protein than a serving of almond milk. Milk also supplies calcium, protein, iodine, potassium, phosphorus, and B vitamins. Other dairy-free alternatives like soymilk often provide many of the same nutrients, but in usually lower quantities.
These claims all support milk consumption and its link to greater health, but some studies also examine the lack of milk consumption and what that does to your health. If you’ve been drinking milk or eating yogurt daily but then suddenly cut it out, you could suffer some health consequences if you don’t replace the milk with other sources of the nutrients it provides. You would need to make sure to especially find other sources of calcium, protein, and potassium. That is—only if you had a moderate diet to begin with and weren’t consuming these nutrients in excess in the first place.
Many people live their whole life vegan, what about them? Some studies show that vegan children who have never consumed animal products are at risk for iron, vitamin B12, iodine, and possibly calorie deficiencies. This is not always the case, but occurs when proper steps are not taken to make sure kids get those nutrients elsewhere.
Some people argue for milk because it is a better choice than other calorie and sugar-laden drinks. True, it is probably better to drink a cup of milk than a cup of soda.
The Argument Against Milk (Or Milk in Moderation)
Do a quick Google search, and you will actually have a hard time finding results in favor of milk. For all of those campaigns out there suggesting that milk is essential for bone health because of its calcium, many studies show that milk is not the best natural source of calcium. Leafy greens and broccoli may actually have more calcium than milk. It is just important to also consume foods with Vitamin D, which helps us to absorb the calcium. In fact, it has been found that too much milk consumption can actually have the reverse effect and cause brittle bones. More than the maximum recommended three glasses of milk a day can do more harm than good.
As far as building strong bones, exercise is also a key component. Kids are probably better off spending an hour running around outside and conditioning their bodies, than they are to consume an extra glass of milk in order to build bone strength.
A personal observation I’ve alluded to earlier is that kids simply drink too much milk. The benefits of drinking milk go away once too much is consumed—no nutrient is good in excess. Kids who are allowed to drink a bottle whenever they ask for one in toddlerhood, or who are not weaned from the bottle when they are supposed to, tend to be overweight. Indeed, prolonged weaning from a bottle has been linked to childhood obesity in 5 year olds in the U.S. They replace a lot of food with liquid calories from milk. They also rely on milk consumption as a comfort rather than a source of nutrition when hungry. They are positively reinforced to drink more and more milk.
Leafy Greens Provide a Better Source of Calcium
Plant Based Milk Alternatives Provide Similar Nutrients
The Bottom Line
After my research, it appears that No, children do not NEED milk to thrive. Kids who are brought up not consuming dairy are usually just as healthy, if not healthier, than their dairy-consuming peers. As long as the nutrients they would otherwise get from milk are replaced with appropriate plant based sources, they will still maintain the health benefits associated with those nutrients. They also are less likely to become overweight since those nutrients are coming from sources that are lower in calories and which are digested more quickly.
While some science may say that kids don’t need milk at all to thrive and grow into strong adults, I won’t be cutting milk altogether from my children’s diet. I will think twice before offering them milk at every meal/snack at home, and will try to replace it with water when I can. I’ll do my best to keep a closer tab on how much milk and dairy they’ve had already that day, and whether milk or water is the best choice.