If you’re a parent in America, odds are you’re frequently reminding your children to “drink their milk.”
Is milk really that nutritious? More so than other foods? Do you ever wonder why milk is the one and only food we readily give our babies & children multiple times per day?
While I personally love dairy products and believe they play a nutritious role in my family’s diet, I haven’t really understood why kids are encouraged to drink milk at each meal or throughout the day. Especially given that our children have become increasingly obese, picky and lacking in consumption of other important food groups (e.g. fruits & veggies).
So I recently did a little research, and have answered some of my own (and your) milk questions below.
Why is it so common for American kids to drink so much milk?
- Tradition. We’ve been encouraging kids to drink milk for over 100 years. And during the first year of life, babies do get most of their nutrients from breastmilk (or formula) so maybe our milk-focus just continues into the later years, whether that’s reasonable or not.
- USDA’s strong ties to the dairy industry. The recommendation that all of us have “three daily cups of milk” is based more on serving dairy farmers than nutrition science.
- Nutrition. Though oddly, this is the weakest reason, since countries with no dairy in their diet tend to have better bone health than we milk-drinkers do.
What nutrients does milk offer?
The main nutritional benefits of milk are protein and calcium. Milk is also fortified with Vitamin D, another important nutrient (but one that can be found in other foods as well as sunlight).
New research has also shown that pasture-raised, organic whole milk (Organic Valley was the brand studied) is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and has 62% more omega-3s than conventional whole milk.
Is it possible to get these nutrients from other sources?
Absolutely, as long as parents make an effort to offer a variety of healthy foods and kids are willing to eat them.
Calcium: Salmon, sardines, beans, kale, broccoli, and many green veggies also provide calcium, as do fortified foods like cereal, some orange juice, milk alternatives, etc. Note: “Fortified” means calcium has been added to a food; its not the same as naturally-occurring calcium.
Protein: Lean meats, fish, beans, tofu, nuts, some grains and other dairy products like yogurt & cheese are also great sources of protein.
Vitamin D: About fifteen daily minutes of playing in the sun (without sunscreen) is probably the best way to get Vitamin D, though this can be harder in the winter. Vitamin D can also be found in egg yolks, tuna, salmon fortified foods like juice, cereal, etc. Taking a multi-vitamin or a Vitamin D supplement is just as good of a way to get Vitamin D as drinking milk.
Is there anything bad about drinking milk?
If your child is drinking two cups of milk or less per day, no. (Unless lactose intolerance runs in your family). More milk than that might begin to interfere with their intake of other foods. Milk is filling, and if kids drink a lot of milk they probably won’t be as hungry for other nutritious foods – vegetables, fruits, grains, fish, legumes, etc. If your child isn’t hungry at mealtimes or seems to only want milk, you may want to offer less milk, less often.
Should you cut milk out of your or your child’s diet?
I personally don’t think so, though you could certainly choose to offer other dairy products – plain yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, etc. – in place of some servings of milk, since eating your calories tends to be better than drinking them. If you do choose to give your children milk, keep these four things in mind:
- Portion size. Limit consumption to 2 cups per day for young kids and 3 cups for older kids.
- Timing. Serving milk right before a meal might fill your child up and make them less hungry for other nutritious foods.
- Organic. Milk from well-treated, pasture-raised cows is more nutritious than milk from cows in confinement who mostly eat corn.
- Lactose intolerance. Diarrhea, cramping, bloating or gas after eating dairy can all be signs of lactose intolerance. More on that here.
What about milk alternatives?
There aren’t any milk alternatives that offer the same naturally-occurring nutritional value as milk. So I don’t recommend any milk alternative over cow’s milk. However, if your child is allergic to dairy or lactose intolerant, soy milk is probably the best replacement (because it offers protein, unlike any other milk alternative). Just make sure you still limit the amount you serve to two cups or less per day (and also monitor timing & quality/organic like listed above).
Are some milks better than others?
Yes. Organic dairy is best. Research has shown that pasture-raised cows – who eat grass most of the time – produce more nutritious milk. Not to mention the other nutritional benefits of organic: it’s the only option guaranteed to be free from artificial hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified feed.
How we do it at my house.
Lucy doesn’t drink milk, but does have it on cereal and as an ingredient in all sorts of things. When I began offering her milk as I was weaning her (around 20 months), she just didn’t seem to like it. This didn’t worry me, given that she loves yogurt and kefir – which I believe are even more nutritious since they’re cultured – and eats cheese as well as beans, greens and a little fish. I feel good about her eating habits, and don’t think she’s missing out on anything crucial by not drinking milk.
shelleyDecember 10, 2013 at 7:59 pm
Thank you for such a comprehensive take on this. I’ve limited my dairy intake since reading Skinny Bitch–I’m still haunted by the graphic tales of terrible treatment of dairy animals and statistics on growth hormones and antibiotics. I only consume organic milk, and I only have it with cereal about three times a week. Do you have an opinion about the growth hormone argument like the one argued by the authors of Skinny Bitch?
claireDecember 11, 2013 at 6:53 pm
Thanks for this post. We only give our son milk at meal times and even then its a half a sippy cup. I am not a milk drinker, I only have it in my coffee, on cereal when I eat that, but I do eat yogurt two times a day. I think that our culture is to give milk to kids yet its totally not based in good scientific facts. Yes they need calcium but they can get that from a variety of good sorces. Glad to read this tonight to reaffirm my sons diet. He loves milk but he LOVES icy water even more he thinks its a treat!
CynDecember 12, 2013 at 5:34 pm
Have you ever tried using coconut oil in your homemade granola recipe instead of canola oil? The recipe looks great-just curious but didn’t want to make a substitution and ruin a big batch.
Amelia WinslowDecember 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm
You can definitely substitute coconut oil!
Amelia WinslowDecember 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm
So cute about the ice water 🙂
Amelia WinslowDecember 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm
I’m not familiar with the Skinny Bitch take on growth hormones. But in general I am very against giving artificial growth hormones to promote milk production in cows.
SammDecember 20, 2013 at 10:08 pm
Just a question- So does organic milk mean it’s from pasture raised cows? Guess I thought they were mutually exclusive most of the time. Should I be looking for pasture raised cow milk or is organic “good enough”?
Amelia WinslowDecember 21, 2013 at 1:30 pm
Hi Samm! All organic cows must graze on pasture for at least 120 days per year, which is more than conventional cows. However, how much MORE time they spend on pasture depends on the brand & weather conditions. Organic Valley cows for example, graze on pasture more than 120 days per year, so their milk is more “Grass-fed,” though they may eat some corn, alfalfa, etc when they’re not on pasture. I’m not sure about Horizon or Private Label organic milks – they could be mostly grass-fed or mostly corn-fed, it just depends. If you want 100% grass-fed milk, buy Organic Valley Grass Milk, or look for “100% grass-fed” on the label of whatever you’re buying. At my house, I try to buy brands I know let their cows graze as often as weather permits – Organic Valley, Clover Organic, Straus Family Creamery – same with yogurts/butter/cheese whenever possible. Brands are different in each region of the country, so best to read labels. Hope that helps!
Marguerite LaneFebruary 9, 2014 at 4:06 pm
I came across your website while looking up oleic acid, so I took a look around. Your article on milk is very good. Just two things missing: the advantages of drinking unpasteurised milk. All the enzymes and immune factors are intact. And goats milk as a substitute for cows milk.
I am a naturopath in private practice (for 12 years), and I’ve found that even people with dairy intolerances can tolerate raw cows milk and/or goats milk. Depending on state laws, raw cows milk might not be legal, but goats milk (including raw) usually is.
See the Weston Price website for details. (www.westonaprice.org). Note: I don’t receive any financial or other reward for recommending them. I just feel it’s the responsible thing to do.
Marguerite Lane ND
RuoaaDecember 22, 2014 at 3:02 am
Milk is Great but children still need iron so as not to develop anemia
JaimeMarch 2, 2015 at 1:48 pm
What are your thoughts on the recent push that humans don’t need cows milk and also that yogurt is too sugar packed to be marketed as a technically “healthy snack”? It seems manufacturers are getting one over on us by pushing yogurt as a good choice.
I’m delivering in a few weeks and if breastfeeding doesn’t work, I’ve done a lot of research and have chosen an organic formula that seems the best of all organic choices, but I’m having trouble deciding what type of drink to offer my child after age 1, because of the current controversy in the media.
Amelia WinslowMarch 2, 2015 at 2:32 pm
Great questions 🙂
1) I don’t think people necessarily need cow’s milk, but I do think that cow’s milk is a lot more nutritious than most of the milk alternatives on the market, which don’t offer much nutritional value at all. Cow’s milk has naturally occurring protein & calcium, and is relatively unprocessed, so it’s still the best choice for people without a dairy allergy.
2) My own kids don’t drink milk as a beverage, they get calcium from yogurt, cheese, occasional milk on cereal, and a variety of other plant-based foods. I believe dairy foods are nutritious for kids, but kids don’t necessarily need to drink milk.
3) Plain organic yogurt – whole milk, low-fat, Greek, etc – is VERY healthy, whereas super-sweetened yogurt is more of a sugary treat and not that nutritions. As long as you buy plain (you can mix a little honey, jam, fruit, etc. in for sweetness) you can feel good about eating yogurt and serving it to kids. I do give my daughter flavored yogurt, but for “dessert” or a “treat” as opposed to with a meal.
Hope that helps! Best wishes for you and the new baby! Here are some breastfeeding tips for newborns if you’re interested: https://eating-made-easy.com/breastfeeding-newborn/ 🙂
denaMarch 29, 2015 at 12:45 pm
My 2 1/2 yr old is in daycare 3 times a week.about every 3 weeks he gets a sinus ear throat thing that requires antibiotic.
When I nebulize him he drains thick clear mucus all day.
He loves milk and I give him horizon because of the omega but I’m thinking of stopping the milk. I’m worried it’s causing these recurring ent issues. Some say it’s just daycare bugs but I was thinking to ween him to almond milk. What do you think.
Amelia WinslowMarch 30, 2015 at 10:48 am
Hi Dena, hmm…I’d say talk to his pediatrician about the ongoing issue, and maybe get a referral to an ENT for another expert opinion. While dairy can’t cause this type of ailment, it can make kids more phlegmy, so during a cold you may want to skip the milk and just offer yogurt & kefir which have probiotics that may help with immunity. Almond milk is a fine substitute for those with a dairy allergy, but it is FAR less nutritious than cow’s milk, so I wouldn’t recommend it for kids. It’d be better to skip the milk altogether and just offer the cultured (probiotic-containing) dairy foods during a cold. When he doesn’t have a cold, milk should be fine for normal, non-allergic kids.
ShawnApril 14, 2015 at 9:30 am
I’m lactose intolerant and living in Canada. Unfortunately I have not been able to source organic lactose free milk. Dairy cows here aren’t given growth hormones but I still wonder if I’m better off drinking soy milk rather than conventional lactose free milk. The other consideration I have is some of the lactose free milks seem very processed, i.e. ultra pasteurized and fine-filtered to remove lactose. While these milks are lower in sugars I wonder if they are a better choice over a minimally processed lactose free milk (regularly pasteurized with only lactase added). Your thoughts and suggestions would be awesome!
Amelia WinslowApril 14, 2015 at 9:08 pm
Hi Shannon, Thanks for your comment. A couple things –
1) lactose-free milk is actually just regular milk with lactase added. No lactose is removed, so there’s no extra processing, just the adding of the enzyme. Taking a lactase pill with milk would technically have the same effect. However, you might just be better off eating cultured dairy products like yogurt & kefir, which are easier on the digestive system, if you can’t find lactose-free organic milk in Canada. And soy milk is also a great choice.
2) Ultra-pasteurization is done to increase shelf-life, not to change the nutrient balance of the milk, so whether a milk is ultra-pastuerized or not shouldn’t affect a milk’s lactose content. (Unless there are products sold near you that I don’t know about!)
Thanks for reading!
ShawnApril 14, 2015 at 9:47 pm
Thanks Amelia! I’ve been reading for years, your blog is my go-to for anything nutrition related!
I can find two types of lactose free milks here. One is produced as you have mentioned, just regular milk with lactase added, and the other brand partially filters out the lactose in addition to adding lactase. Check it out here -http://www.natrel.ca/en/products/lactose-free. The lactose content is lower but I wonder if the processing done to accomplish this effects the nutritional profile or digestibility of the milk. What do you think?
Even though dairy cows here are not given growth hormones or antibiotics would you still recommend avoiding it in favour of organic cultured products, and soy milk?
I haven’t tried kefir. Is it completely lactose free?
MatthewMay 3, 2015 at 7:58 pm
If after you have finished breast-feeding and/or formula. What I would suggest is that you get your child to start drinking water perhaps occasionally some juice as a snack but I recommend it should be a treat. Because when they are thirsty they need water Water doesn’t have any added nutrients or sugar. Nobody is water intolerant. Too much water is a problem you can end up flushing out necessary minerals in your body. Get your nutrition out of your food.
BloomWorldJuly 3, 2015 at 1:51 am
Our body is made up of 70% of water and it still need it for proper functioning. Lack of water in body can make you dehydrated and can keep your organs unfit. Milk provides proteins and calcium needed for the healthy living but too much of milk or only milk will do harm. Excess of calcium is attached to various bones related diseases and so does excess of proteins and other minerals found in milk will do. The milk can be substituted with other products that have the same servings but keeping your body hydrated with water is a must to attain good health
ShaneSeptember 10, 2015 at 2:36 pm
I heard that milk is the one of nature’s most complete food. Personally i think drinking milk everyday is essential for anyone(of any age) except those with lactose intolerance or other allergies of course…
Amelia WinslowSeptember 10, 2015 at 2:43 pm
Milk IS a very complete food, if you drink whole organic milk. But despite it’s nutritional value, kids don’t need it to grow. If they do enjoy milk, they shouldn’t drink it as a replacement for other nutritious foods, which sometimes happens. (note: like I’ve said, milk is definitely more nutritious than any milk alternative, unless an allergy or intolerance is present).
NilinJanuary 14, 2016 at 5:57 am
Cow’s milk is for baby cows. End of story.
Amelia WinslowJanuary 15, 2016 at 9:31 am
Hi Nilin. If you look at the history of cow’s milk and why humans started drinking it, it’s pretty interesting and may give you another perspective, even if you don’t agree. This book has a great chapter on the topic: “All Natural*: *A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier”
KCMay 4, 2016 at 7:37 am
You stated that the nutrients found in milk can be obtained from other food sources, yet you still would not discontinue serving milk to your kids. Can I ask why? What are some benefits of milk that cannot be replaced by other foods?
Amelia WinslowMay 4, 2016 at 1:13 pm
Great question, KC. My family members – including me – love dairy products, especially yogurt, kefir and cheese. I find these to be super convenient sources of protein and calcium (and healthy fat when I’m choosing organic grass-fed varieties) so they are a key part of my family’s diet. My point in this article is more about conquering the misperception that kids “need” milk more than they need nutrients from other foods, or that they should get a large percentage of their calories from milk. That’s the part I find to be outdated / not backed by research. But milk and milk products CAN play a healthy role in the diet for many families.
JasonJune 14, 2016 at 9:54 pm
Hi. My 6 year old dislikes milk but loves curd. Is it OK to replace his milk with curd? Or does curd lack any nutrients found in milk?
Amelia WinslowJune 15, 2016 at 12:47 pm
Hi Jason, when you say curd do you mean cottage cheese? Curd is high in protein but has less calcium than milk, simply because of what’s found in which component of dairy. If he’s eating a wide variety of foods, and eats yogurt, then no he probably doesn’t need milk. A varied diet with lots of leafy green veggies & beans and some dairy sprinkled in will likely provide enough calcium. Check with a registered dietitian though if you have any further questions.