Should Our Kids Consume Dairy?

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Boy drinking milk. Vanessa Davies/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

We are mammals.  Baby mammals survive on dairy, or they don’t survive at all. And, of course, it’s not just any dairy.  It’s the particular version of dairy unique to their own species: Mother’s milk.

So the first answer to the question posed in the title above is not only “yes,” but a yes derived directly from imperatives of evolutionary biology.

Our tendency to question the appropriateness of breast milk for newborn Homo sapiens over recent decades is testimony to a form of benighted arrogance our species seems to have invented.

  Had natural selection not worked out the formula for feeding newborns for us over the eons, we wouldn’t be here to debate it.  Yet, we debated it just the same.

Thankfully, that debate seems to have reached appropriate closure.  Absent some contraindication, such as a transmissible infection, or a mother’s inability to provide the milk- breast milk is the overwhelmingly recommended first food for our children, as it should have been all along.  In the particular context of childhood obesity, the evidence for breast feeding as an important, early defense is quite strong.

So yes, our babies, like all other baby mammals, should start out consuming dairy.  That’s the easy answer.

Things get a bit more complicated after that, as we shift from the rather blatant answers of biology to the choices imparted by culture.  Should our children transition from the dairy derived from our own species, to that of another?

Personally, living in the U.S., I think so.  The evidence in support of health benefits from dairy consumption in childhood here is strong and consistent.  There is a particular benefit related to weight control and the prevention of obesity, just as there is for breast feeding.

But, it’s important to note, as I did in a recent column that explores these matters at greater length, that the benefits of dairy for Homo sapiens after weaning are legitimately debatable.

 

For one thing, there are other ways to get those benefits, and there is no clear case that the offspring of vegans would benefit from the addition of dairy to their diets.  There are Blue Zone populations that raise their children with no recourse to dairy after breast feeding, and the result is- well- Blue Zones.  There are also Blue Zone populations in the Mediterranean region for which dairy is a staple, albeit one of lesser apparent importance than some of the other features of the native diet. Blue Zone populations live longer and better than the rest of us, so whatever they do- works.  They illustrate well both the theme of healthful eating, and the opportunity select a favored variant on that theme.

For another, the benefits of dairy are a matter of context; of what is added to the diet, and what is removed.  If our children drink milk (of whatever kind) instead of soda, they are certainly trading up.  If they drink sweetened milk concoctions in lieu of water, they might well be trading down.

 That is likely one of the reasons for the fairly strong, consistent association between dairy intake and weight control in the U.S.  Kids who drink a lot of soda tend to consume less dairy, and vice versa.

Ultimately, questions about dairy in the diets of our children become questions about dairy in our own diets, since we are far more likely to maintain dietary patterns when we live it together, rather than diet alone.  There are arguments both for and against habitual dairy intake by adults, encompassing the kind of dairy; dietary context; environmental impact; the treatment of animals; and our own genetic polymorphisms.

But in this one short column on a potentially complex topic, let’s stay focused and keep things simple.  Our own baby mammals should begin life, whenever possible, nourished by their mother’s milk.  In the U.S., where the prevailing alternatives are rather dubious, the inclusion of dairy in the diets of our children is associated with health benefit.  Those already committed to healthful diets that exclude dairy, however, should feel no pressure.  Those work, too.

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