Kids, Dairy, Weight, and Health: Uncurdling the Whey

Girl eating cereal. GJI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

New-Age journalism, or what passes for it, has a tendency to translate the incremental advance of science into hyperbolic headlines, and milk the data for a lot more than they are really worth.  A recent study about the hazards of drinking milk is no exception.

The study in question has likely come to your attention already, via those alarming headlines.  But just in case it has not, it was published recently in the British Medical Journal.

 The researchers looked at variation in milk intake, and variation in both fractures and mortality, among both men and women over a span of years.  They reported that higher milk intake was associated with higher, not lower, fracture risk- and increased rates of premature death. 

This is no doubt a source of some anxiety for parents long convinced that dairy was a good choice for children.  But does the new study really mean that latte is suddenly lethal?

It does not.

I have reviewed the study in some detail elsewhere, and won’t repeat all that here.  Suffice to say that an observational study of this type cannot prove cause and effect.  Perhaps higher milk intake in older adults does increase risks.  But it’s also possible that higher risks in older adults increase milk intake, in an attempt to forestall fracture and illness.  When something as fundamental as the direction of causality is uncertain, rushing to judgment is ill advised.

There is a large volume of literature suggesting benefits to the health and weight of children with routine intake of dairy.  Milk is an important source of calcium and added vitamin D, both of which are thought to favor the development of strong bones and lean body mass.  The new study did not address dairy intake in childhood at all.

While dairy may confer benefits to kids, it is clear it is not essential.  Veganism, which excludes dairy, is associated with exceptional health and long life, even when begun in childhood.

From my perspective, the crucial question about dairy in childhood is the one we tend to forget: instead of what?  In the context of an optimal, balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, in which pure water is the principal beverage, there is no proof that dairy would confer benefit- and arguments to the contrary.  In the context of the typical American diet, however, where milk is apt to be an alternative to soda- the arguments run convincingly the other way.

If you are offering your child a diet of wholesome foods in sensible combinations, it can reasonably include or exclude dairy as your personal priorities and preferences warrant.  Studies that show benefits from dairy intake do not preclude those same benefits from thoughtful, dairy-free diets.  The new study just raises questions; it does not suddenly make dairy dangerous.

Beware media coverage that milks every study for much more than it is really worth- and feed your kids accordingly.

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