In my household, jugs of milk disappear almost within hours of our bringing them home. My husband sometimes sighs that it would be cheaper just to buy a cow. In my classroom, students who bring their own lunch often leave their water bottles untouched and ask for a carton of milk from the school lunch. Milk and children just naturally seem to go together. But should it be that way? Do kids really need milk in their diets?
This particular dietary habit has been part of history almost as long as mankind itself. Archeological evidence suggests that farmers in Britain and northern Europe may have been keeping dairy cows 6,000 years ago, according to the website ProCon.org. As far as more recent history goes, milk has been provided to schoolchildren under federal programs since 1940, and advertisements such as the famous "Got Milk?" campaign have promoted milk-drinking as a delicious and healthy part of a balanced diet.
But for every pro-milk ad, there's a counterargument from an expert who points to evidence that milk isn't as good for kids as we've been taught to believe. Exactly what is the truth? The arguments below are both for and against milk-drinking, and some seem equally compelling. In the end, though, it's up to each individual parent to decide whether to include milk in their child's diet.
Pro: Milk Provides Vital Nutrients
The divine way it pairs with warm chocolate-chip cookies would be reason enough to drink it, but milk also contains certain nutrients that are difficult to obtain from other foods. For instance, milk and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are a major source of dietary calcium, according to the National Institutes of Health. As healthy as broccoli is, one serving has only 2 percent of the recommended daily value of calcium; canned salmon only has 18 percent. But an 8-ounce cup of nonfat milk provides a full 30 percent of our calcium needs. (You'd have to eat a whole lot of broccoli to get that much.)
Milk is also packed with brain-boosting protein. The recommended two-cup serving daily provides 100 percent of a young child's protein needs, which is welcome news for parents of picky eaters.
Con: Humans Weren't Built To Drink Cow's Milk
From a biological standpoint, drinking milk doesn't come naturally. Two Harvard Medical School professors recently pointed out in the journal JAMA Pediatrics that "humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk, an evolutionarily recent addition to diet." They also noted that many world cultures exclude milk from their menus for health or personal reasons, and don't suffer any ill effects.
Even in our dairy-loving American society, we acknowledge certain limits. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the only milk a child should get during the first year of life is breast milk, which has the specific nutrients a baby needs. After that, the jury is still out on how much milk kids should drink, although one Canadian study reported by Time indicated that two cups of milk a day for kids may be the optimal amount, nutritionally speaking.
Pro: Milk Provides The Vitamin D Kids May Not Be Getting
Once upon a time, kids spent much of their free daylight hours out in their backyards, roaming the neighborhood, or playing in the park. They soaked up plenty of sunshine in the process, allowing their bodies to absorb lots of bone-building vitamin D. Today, children spend more time indoors, and when they do go out in the heat, they're covered in sunscreen. In a Stanford Medicine Newsletter article, the author noted that as much as 40 percent of Americans suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. Most of our milk is vitamin D-fortified, so a single serving of milk provides a substantial amount of our kids' needs, even when we can't send them out to play for three hours.
Con: Milk Is Linked To Certain Health Problems
We associate milk with strength and health, but that's not always the case. Research links milk drinking with iron deficiency in babies and toddlers, although the risk goes down with age. Milk and dairy consumption can make eczema worse and trigger acne in teens. Even the bone-strengthening benefits of milk may be exaggerated: A recent long-term study reported in JAMA Pediatrics showed that older folks who drank a lot of milk as teens were no less likely to have hip fractures than people who drank less.
Pro: Milk Helps Kids Grow Taller
Parents who give their kids soy and nut milk for health or other reasons may find that their children aren't as tall as their cow's milk-drinking peers. A Canadian study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that kids who drank non-cow milk beverages were shorter than children who drank similar quantities of moo juice.
Pro: Milk May Ward Off Dementia
Although more research still needs to be done in this area, at least one small study indicates that milk and dairy consumption may be linked to lower risk of dementia. Researchers who studied a cohort of an elderly Japanese population found that those who consumed more milk and dairy products were less likely to develop dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease.
Con: Too Much Milk Spoils Kids' Appetite
Nutritionists caution that because milk is very filling, it's easy for children to go overboard. As pediatrician Natasha Burgert told Slate, one possible explanation for the iron deficiency risk in toddlers is that they may fill up on milk at mealtimes and then refuse to eat the iron-rich foods on their plate. Calcium also inhibits iron absorption, adding to the problem.
Con: Milk May Be Tied To Obesity
Milk may encourage kids' growth not only in height, but in width as well. A study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood found that preschoolers were more likely to become obese if they drank more than three servings of milk a day. Why? The natural sugars in milk may have something to do with it. And if that milk is flavored with chocolate or other sweeteners, that's an additional three or more teaspoons of sugar per serving.
Bottom Line: Use Your Best Judgment
Whichever side of the milk-and-kids debate you're on, your choice should be beneficial for your child. Moderate amounts of milk have proven health benefits, but children who don't or can't drink milk can get their nutrients from tofu, beans, vegetables, or vitamin supplements. Of course, it's important to discuss your child's diet with their doctor, but once your pediatrician gives the okay, then go ahead and pour that glass of cow — or soy, or almond —milk.