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Family Line: Milk choices for toddlers and young children

8:22 PM, May 21, 2013  |  Comments
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Experts generally recommend that babies be given whole milk when they stop drinking breast milk or formula after their first birthday, and then switch to fat-free or low-fat milk after their second birthday. But a new study from the Archives of Diseases of Childhood shows that toddlers who drank low-fat (1 percent) or non-fat (skim) milk tended to gain more weight over a two-year period than toddlers who drank whole (full-fat) milk.

This new study is important because it includes data from a large group of children for two years. However, the researchers did not measure other important factors affecting weight gain such as exercise levels or total calorie intakes. A critical question left unanswered by this study: Do low-fat milk drinkers gain more weight than whole-milk drinkers, or do parents of children who tend to gain weight rapidly switch them to low-fat milk earlier than parents of children who gain weight less rapidly?

In some cases, the switch to lower-fat milk may be recommended before age two, according to Frank Greer, pediatrics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Recent publications from the American Academy of Pediatrics are moving towards recommending low-fat milk for children between 12 and 24 months of age if they are at risk for overweight or obesity.

Young children need about two cups of milk per day because it is a major source of important nutrients including protein, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. However, whole milk has more calories and saturated fat than lower-fat milk.

Greer recommends discussing your child's nutritional needs with a doctor, dietitian or other medical professional. Whether you choose nonfat, low-fat, reduced fat, or whole milk, it is important to include milk in your child's daily diet and minimize intakes of soda and other sweetened beverages.

Parents who do not want to continue giving cows' milk to toddlers or older children should be careful label readers and choose nutritious substitutes such as low-fat yogurt and cheese or fortified soy beverage (often called soymilk), that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

For more information on making nutritious choices of milk and dairy foods, see the "Got Your Dairy Today?" fact sheet on the ChooseMyPlate.gov website.

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