Should Kids Drink Milk?

kid drinking milk
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In this highly polarized, hyper-opinionated culture of ours, almost any topic in nutrition is apt to evoke opposing passions.  None, however, is more prone to do so than dairy.  For some, it’s a given that dairy is a dietary staple- as wholesome and innocent as childhood memories of cookies and milk.  For others, it’s emblematic of everything wrong with modern eating: factory farming, cruelty to animals, excessive processing, and inattention to our native adaptations.

With recent, and in my view very misguided, attempts to both exonerate, and maybe even canonize saturated fat, the debate has become frothier than ever.  It now extends to competing factions even among the dairy supporters, with some arguing for preferential selection of full-fat dairy.  Yet another contingent is clamoring for a return to the raw milk that prevailed in the days before pasteurization.

I have waded deeply through just such curds and whey in a recent column to which I refer those of you who want the long-winded particulars.  Here, my focus is succinctly reflected by my title: should kids drink milk?

For some, the question in my title is an obvious no.  For others, it’s an equally obvious yes.  Members of those camps presumably don’t need to be here, since they have their answers already.  This is for everyone else.


If you are vegan, or for some other reason don’t like the idea of including dairy in your diet, you are not obligated to do so to raise healthy children.

  All available evidence suggests that children raised by vegetarians and vegans grow and thrive, all other things being equal, provided the diet is sensible and balanced.  For those thinking about going vegan, and wondering what sensible and balanced means, I routinely recommend this book.  If you want the last milk your kids ever get to be breast milk- that’s absolutely fine.

However, it is also fine to include dairy in your kids’ diets.  Most studies suggest benefit associated with dairy in the diets of kids in the U.S.  That, however, isn’t necessarily about the beneficial nutrients dairy delivers-although that is likely part of the story.  The other part is that kids who drink more milk are likely drinking less soda.  Benefits of dairy likely relate to dietary context, for kids and adults alike.  Adding dairy to a truly optimal, plant-based diet is unlikely to confer additional benefit.  Consuming minimally processed dairy in the place of soda, juice drinks, and highly processed snack foods almost certainly will.

I still favor fat-free dairy, but here too, context matters.  If your kids have, for whatever reason, a very low intake of dietary fat overall, full-fat dairy might lend some benefit in terms of satiety (i.e., a lasting feeling of fullness).  But my recommendation would be to get that instead from dietary fats we truly know to be beneficial, namely monounsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados; and balanced polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3s, also found in some nuts and seeds- and from high quality protein foods.

I think dairy should be locally sourced and organic when possible, both so you know the cows are being treated humanely, and so you know nothing unintended- like hormones or antibiotics- is along for the ride.

If your kids don’t consume dairy, make sure they are getting enough vitamin D (and calcium) from other foods, from good quality supplements, or from adequate exposure to sunlight.  If in doubt, confer with your pediatrician.

On a personal note, all 5 of my own kids included dairy in their diets growing- of just the kind I recommend above, and not all that much.  Now, they are grown- and 3 of them still include dairy in their diets, while the other two, who are vegetarian, do not.  All are thriving.

Despite the tendency for everyone to milk their opinion on dairy for more than it’s worth- a child’s diet can be healthful with or without it, provided the diet itself is all about wholesome foods in a sensible combination.  Get that right, and proceed as the spirit moves you.

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