Does Your Kid Need to Drink Milk? The Great Debate

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Once babies are officially off the bottle or the breast, most parents transition their little ones to drinking milk on a daily basis. But does milk really do a little body good? And just how much do children have to drink?

The research

The USDA recommends that children ages 2 to 3 get two servings of dairy per day, children ages 4 to 8 get two-and-a-half servings, and kids ages 9 and older get three servings. To put that in perspective, one serving of dairy is 1 cup of milk, 1 ½ ounces of cheese and/or a small container of yogurt.

But research shows that less may be more when it comes to cow’s milk: A 2012 study of 1,300 children, ages 2 to 5, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that 2 cups of milk may be the ideal maximum amount. Toddlers who consumed that much had a healthy balance of both vitamin D and iron. Children who drank 3 or more cups of milk had higher levels of vitamins D, but at a price: Their iron levels decreased since milk can affect iron absorption. The researchers did note one exception to the 2-cups-max rule: Children with dark complexions who didn’t receive supplemental vitamin D during the winter needed 3 to 4 cups of milk to maintain a healthy level of vitamin D.

For the parents of picky eaters, milk can be a good source of protein: 1 cup of reduced-fat (2 percent) milk contains nearly 9 grams of protein, according to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. It’s also rich in calcium and fortified with hard-to-get vitamin D.

But some research calls into question just how effective milk is at strengthening children’s (and adults’) bones and guarding against fractures later in life. A 2014 study on dairy consumption in adults found that the more milk women drank, the higher their risk of bone fractures. In addition, high milk consumption was also linked to a higher risk of death in both men and women. The researchers noted that sugars in milk, lactose and galactose, have an inflammatory effect and cause oxidative stress, which they theorize contributes to the increased risk of fractures and higher mortality rates. (The researchers also pointed out that both yogurt and cheese were associated with lower rates of fractures and mortality.)

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Is it healthy for children to drink milk? (Photo: Alamy)

Other research links milk with weight gain. A large study of children ages 9 to 14, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that kids who drank 3 cups of milk per day had higher BMIs than kids who drank one or two glasses daily, even if the milk was 1 percent or skim. It’s not clear why low-fat milk would contribute to weight gain just as much as whole-fat milk, but some experts speculate that low-fat milk provides less satiety than whole milk, possibly making kids more apt to reach for high-calorie foods.

What the experts say

Milk can play a beneficial role in children’s health and growth, which is why many pediatricians recommend giving little ones whole milk up until age 2 before switching to the low-fat version. “[Babies need] the fat for nerve and brain development,” Frank Greer, MD, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition, told Parenting.

What’s more, milk can help fill in some nutritional gaps for choosey kids. “Picky eaters may struggle to get enough protein and calories in their diets, and milk is an easy, nutrient-rich way to deliver those calories,” Jonathon Maguire, MD, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, told LiveScience.

But others say milk doesn’t live up to its bone-bolstering promises and note that there are other ways to get calcium (eating leafy, green vegetables and beans) and strengthen bones, such as by being physically active.

“From an evidence-based perspective, milk does not appear to be a magic fairy food whose consumption leads to bones of steel or eternal health,” Yoni Freedhoff, MD, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, writes in U.S News and World Report. “It also does not appear to be a dietary demon that’s poisoning the nation. I think that milk is a liquid source of calcium, that there are many alternative sources of calcium, and that, if bone strength and general health is your concern, you’re much better off ensuring you and your children do plenty of weight-bearing exercise.”

What the parents say

“I like milk because I feel like it helps give my daughter extra calories and nutrients. She’s a slightly picky eater. She also drinks water, but milk is her favorite beverage and she chugs it like a champ.” — Michelle R.

“I think many children over-consume milk. It provides important amounts of protein, calcium, and vitamin D, but too much milk is a concern because the child may be filling up on it. I always serve water at meal times, but if my kids want a glass of milk after their meal or as a snack, that’s when I usually offer it.” —Heather Bauer

“I do wonder whether my daughter drinks too much milk and recently switched her from 2 to 1 percent. She only drinks milk or water and isn’t a fan of juice, which I don’t mind. I figure she’s getting protein, vitamins, and calcium from milk, especially since she’s such a picky eater.” — Susan Jara

The bottom line

Stick with 2 cups of milk max daily so the beverage doesn’t crowd out other important nutrients, such as food-derived protein and calcium, and offer your child water throughout the day as a calorie- and sugar-free way to stay hydrated.

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