The Great Milk Debate: Do Kids Really Need Moo-re Calcium?

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With so many of us wanting to make healthier and more sustainable decisions, it’s no wonder that we’re taking a closer look at the foods we put into our bodies. Whether your family has reaffirmed your commitment to nutritious eating or you’re considering switching to a plant-based lifestyle, it’s important to consider how your children will fare. After all, kids may have slightly different nutritional needs — particularly if they have allergies or sensitivities to contend with.

Here’s a question that often comes up a lot… and we hope no one will have a cow when they hear it: Do kids really need to drink milk? Let’s learn a bit moo-re about the subject.

What Are the Benefits of Milk?

Growing up, you probably heard that “milk does a body good.” It’s certainly true that milk is a good source of protein, vitamin D, and calcium. Although 91% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 have at least one cavity, following a diet that’s rich in calcium and protein can build strong bones and teeth — which kids definitely need. Milk also has potassium, vitamin A, and healthy fats that help with brain development.

If your child is a picky eater and enjoys milk, keeping milk in their daily diet can be essential to prevent malnutrition. It’s also a good way to ensure kids stay hydrated. Although 400 billion gallons of water are used nationwide per day, a 2015 study found that more than half of all U.S. kids are dehydrated. Water may be the best option, but milk is certainly better than nothing. The American Pediatrics also recommends that toddlers have up to 24 ounces of milk every day, so this is something you should take into consideration especially when your children are small. But whether or not milk is vital, particularly for older kids, may be a different story.

Is Drinking Milk Really Necessary?

It’s undeniable that milk has nutritional benefits — but many of these benefits can easily be obtained from other sources (like nuts, leafy greens, beans, fortified cereals, and more). Parents should also note that dairy has higher levels of natural sugars, which may be a concern. Kids who have acne, allergies, eczema, lactose intolerance, or other digestive issues may do much better without dairy milk in their diets.

There also isn’t much data to show that drinking milk can prevent bone injuries. In fact, a 2013 study found that kids who live in countries with lower rates of milk consumption also have lower bone fracture rates than children living in countries with higher milk consumption rates. There’s also evidence to suggest that drinking too much milk can contribute to obesity and even anemia. Calorie-counting isn’t something parents should be engaging in for themselves or their kids, but it may be surprising to some to learn that an eight-ounce glass of low-fat chocolate milk actually has the same number of calories from sugar as an eight-ounce glass of cola. Drinking milk can also reduce a child’s appetite for other, more necessary foods — causing them to miss out on other nutrients.

Ultimately, many experts agree that drinking dairy milk isn’t necessary for many kids or adults. Non-dairy milks are generally good substitutes, provided they’re fortified with vitamin D and calcium. It’s a good idea to limit milk consumption and to encourage kids to drink water between meals instead. As long as your kids are eating plenty of nutrient-rich foods throughout the day, consuming more than the recommended 24-ounce serving each day really isn’t necessary. And if they drink too much of it, it could be hurtful to them in the long term.

This isn’t to say that you should cut out milk entirely. If your child drinks milk in moderation or your doctor has recommended your child continue to drink it, you should follow their lead. You know your child best, after all. But if you’re still buying gallons of the stuff because you assume it’s the healthiest choice, you might want to think about making a change. In this case, you don’t have to follow the herd.

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