How Milkfat Influences Vitamin D Status and Weight in Young Children

  • Article
  • January 10, 2017

Two health concerns during early childhood are overweight and low vitamin D status (blood concentration of 25-hydroxyvitamin D). As health and wellness professionals, we want to help children minimize the risk of obesity, while maximizing vitamin D status -- without making trade-offs between these two important health concerns.

Results of a cross-sectional study investigating how the fat level of milk might influence weight and vitamin D status in Canadian preschool children (1-6 years) indicated that tradeoffs may not be necessary. Drinking whole milk was related to both higher vitamin D concentrations and lower body mass index (BMI) compared to those who drank 1 percent milk. This study is consistent with previous studies showing a neutral or inverse association between whole milk consumption and risk of overweight/obesity in kids. The findings also fit within the broader context of what we have been learning about the unique composition of milkfat and its relationship to health.

The National Institutes of Health, Health Canada and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children between one and two years of age drink whole milk and those above two years drink lower fat (1 or 2 percent) milk to limit fat and energy (calorie) intake to help reduce the risk of childhood obesity. These new, emerging findings raise the possibility that reduced-fat milks may compromise both vitamin D status and BMI in young children, the authors note. However, since the study was cross-sectional (data collected at one point in time) and observational in nature, intervention and longitudinal studies are needed to prove that drinking whole milk causes less weight gain in children than 1 percent milk.

To explain the observed relationship between consumption of whole milk and higher vitamin D status, the authors hypothesize that vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, may be better absorbed from higher fat milk. However, a clinical study conducted in 2003 found that vitamin D was bioavailable from both fat-free milk and orange juice. All milk, regardless of fat content, is fortified with 100 IUs of vitamin D per cup, and is another good reason for children to drink milk.   

As we wait for these emerging findings to be clarified by longitudinal (over time) and randomized clinical trials, it’s important to remember that while childhood obesity numbers have increased, the amount of milk children have been drinking has decreased. So as health and wellness professionals, caregivers or parents, it’s important to encourage children to drink milk. Here are some thoughts to guide your conversation when people ask “What type of milk should children drink?” All milk, regardless of fat level, contains the same 13 essential nutrients that are vitally important for children’s growth and development.