Why We Shouldn’t Skimp on Milk for Young Children

  • Article
  • November 1, 2016

Milk is an important source of essential nutrients in children’s eating plans that contributes to bone and overall health, but by age 6 many are not getting the daily recommended amount of the dairy food group. Poor eating patterns, even in early childhood, can continue as habits in adulthood and increase the risk for overweight and the development of chronic conditions. Researchers are looking for behavioral strategies that maintain the nutritional quality of children’s eating plans without encouraging excessive weight gain. New research on drinking milk among preschoolers provides some interesting insights and confirms its beneficial role.

Previously, prospective studies have shown that greater consumption of milk (Hasnain, 2014) or full fat dairy foods (Bigornia, 2014) in children is associated with lower measures of body fat as adolescents compared to lower consumption levels. But without a clinical trial to determine cause-and-effect, this relationship has been largely unexplained. Now a new clinical trial in preschool children provides at least one clue that may help explain this relationship.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have conducted a clinical trial using a crossover design to investigate how varying the portion size (6 vs. 9 fluid ounces) and calorie/fat level  of milk (1 percent vs. whole) served to preschool children at lunch affected their consumption of calories from milk, food and the total meal (milk and food). Interestingly, they found varying milk portion size or the calorie/fat level did not affect the children’s total calorie consumption at lunch. But why?  They found:

  • When whole milk was served at lunch rather than 1% milk (regardless of serving size), boys compensated for the additional calories by eating less food (~43 less calories), while total meal energy consumption was not affected. For girls, serving whole milk led to a modest increase in meal energy consumption (~24 more calories).
  • Serving more than the 6-ounce minimum portion of milk required by childcare centers in the Child and Adult Care Food Program at lunch increased consumption of milk among all children without significantly affecting the total calories of the meal, but long-term effects are unknown.  

The publication from Penn State is the first to clinically demonstrate that young children have the ability to adjust their food consumption within a meal to accommodate variations in milk portion size and energy density (fat and calorie levels).

In many ways this is not surprising because child feeding experts like Ellyn Satter, MS, RDN, MSSW and the American Academy of Pediatrics have reminded us that children have the ability to self-regulate their food consumption. However, one factor that can disrupt this natural process is if parents and caregivers try to excessively prompt or encourage their children to eat. Instead, it is the parent’s responsibility to provide their children with structure at mealtime and appropriate portions of healthy foods while allowing the child to decide how much to eat.

Based on these results, health and wellness professionals can feel good about encouraging children in the families they counsel to drink their recommended daily servings of milk  as part of a well-balanced eating plan within each child’s individual calorie recommendations.

If you are a health and wellness professional, learn more about child health with this resource for a recap of presentations at the Childhood Health and Nutrition Research Conference hosted by the USDA Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center and National Dairy Council. Registered dietitians have an opportunity to earn CE credits until March 2017.