It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.
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Monday
Jul092012

Got Milk? Some Say You Don't Need It

If I had to name a single hot-button issue in the feeding arena it would be milk consumption.

Many parents do crazy things to get more moo into their kids' mouths.  

But milk consumption is one of those places where you have to think a little more about habits than about nutrition.

Of course, when it comes to milk it's harder to think about habits than to think about nutrition because our national dialogue about milk consumption is hysterical—not the funny kind of hysterical either.

Parents are led to believe their kids won't grow properly or that they'll suffer from some sort of early onset osteoporosis (I made that up, I don't think there is such a thing, but you get my point) if their children don't drink every last drop.

Mark Bittman raised a lot of interesting points about milk in The New York Times yesterday and, while Bittman doesn't address the needs of children specifically, his thoughts are definitely worth considering.

According to Bittman's article Got Milk? You Don't Need It:

  • Sugar—in the form of lactose—contributes about 55 percent of skim milk's calories, giving it ounce for ounce the same calorie load as soda. (And yes, Bittman knows that milk contains more nutrients than soda.)
  • Milk is the second most common food allergy after peanuts, affecting an estimated 1.3 million children. According to Bittman, this allergy can be life threatening. (I did not know this.)
  • In Bittman's case, no dairy=no heartburn. (Something to consider if your little pumpkin has acid reflux.)
  • Milk and other dairy products are our biggest source of saturated fat, and there are links between dairy consumption and both Type 1 diabetes and prostate cancer.
  • You don't need milk, or large amounts of calcium, for bone integrity. The rate of fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries. The key to bone strength is exercise and vitamin D.

In my opinion, the most thought-provoking idea Bittman serves up is this: Most humans never tasted fresh milk from any source other than their mothers for almost all of human history.

Until now.  Makes you think.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't encourage your children to drink milk.

My daughter drinks milk, always has.  But if your child doesn't, for some reason, don't freak out, and don't contort yourself trying to get her to drink more.

I would rather produce a child who: 

  • Eats a wide variety of healthy foods even if she drinks no milk at all. 

Rather than produce a child who: 

  • Drinks plenty of milk but who won't, for instance, even look at anything green. 

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~ 

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Reader Comments (10)

My son is slightly lactose-intolerant, which means in practice he doesn't drink liquid milk, although he's OK if it's even slightly processed (cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. all OK.)

However, early on - I think from Ellyn Satter's book, I learned to treat milk as though it is a FOOD and not a beverage. We'd offer it (or alternatives, once we figured out the intolerance) as a snack, and never with a meal. As a result, I think he tends to eat better at mealtimes than many kids do, because he isn't filling up on the beverage. I think that has served us well; my son doesn't tend to drink his calories and is a healthy boy with clearly quite strong bones.

I wish schools would stop offering milk at lunchtime and, if they're going to offer it, replace "snack" time with milk or milk alternatives.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichele Hays

Hi, Dina.
Great article. I read it with particular interest because, as you may remember, our son, Dylan, has lived most of his life with a dairy allergy (and many other allergies, too.) His was, as Mark Bittman suggested, potentially life threatening. So, as he was growing up, we concentrated on leafy greens and supplements to make sure he got enough calcium... and it worked! Now 16, and a very healthy 5'11", we can say, at a minimum, that not drinking his milk never stunted his growth.

There is also research out there that suggests dairy consumption in some children contributes to chronic ear infections. I know that my experience may not be typical, but I can say that Dylan had exactly 2 ear infections growing up... pretty good track record. Whether that's because he didn't consume dairy, or because of something else, I'll never know, but it's at least worth consideration for those parents whose kids suffer from the kind of chronic misery that ear infections bring.

This year, he has shed the allergies... all of them. Well, at least all that we've been tested for through the food challenge process in the doctor's office. There are more tests coming... so maybe, by the end of the year, he will be allergic to nothing. It's a case of better living through chemistry. He's on a drug called Xolair that, through a process that would require too much explanation for this note, has eliminated his allergy to dairy (and eggs, and probably nuts and shellfish, too) from his system. As long as he gets the shots -- 6 a month -- he's cleared to eat those long forbidden foods.

It's been quite an adventure adding dairy to the diet of a 16 year old. Most kids, when they try ice cream for the first time, are too young to extol its virtues quite like an articulate teenager with a flair for the dramatic can. He's having the time of his life indulging in traditional teenage favorites like cheese pizza and nacho cheese doritos. But,there's no question that his diet on a day to day basis is sometimes LESS healthy than it was without dairy. And it comes with other costs... he's had heartburn for the first time in his life, and let's not discuss what lactose can do to a "virgin" digestive tract. Not pretty.

I'm glad for him that ordering in restaurants is easier, and that he doesn't have to segregate himself from the table when his friends are eating cheese pizza, or peanut butter. But I don't actually think he's any better off with dairy -- from dietary prospective -- than he was without it.

Cheers,
Michelle

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Fish

Michele Hays: I love the idea of treating milk like a food not a beverage, and I'm going to start using this advice in my work. However, I would like schools to think of milk as a food/beverage and start serving it at a time when kids are likely to be hungry and thirsty—say, after gym or recess. More kids would voluntarily drink it and we wouldn't have the coercion (and the waste) at lunchtime.

Michelle Fish: Thanks for the real-life evidence that you can grow up to be big and strong without milk. And for the evidence that kids can outgrow allergies. I'm glad for Dylan that he can now have a more "normal" life. I'm a little sad for him too since it comes with all these other issues. As you say, his diet isn't as healthy as it was when dairy free. Of course, he is a teen! Thanks for your comment. It's always great to know that real life friends are reading.

Dina

July 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

What do you do if your two year old loves milk so much he would drink it all day? Pediatrician says to limit dairy to total of 24 oz per day, with a max of 18 oz from milk. My son has his picky days, loves carbs, but also eats fruits & veggies at every meal. Is it worth the fight to say no if he is screaming for milk?

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKerri

Kerri,

It's definitely worth the fight to limit your son's milk consumption. From a health perspective too much milk can lead to an iron-deficiency. From a habits perspective, too much milk can interfere with kids eating a good meal, trying new foods, etc. But I sympathize. A lot of children develop an emotional attachment to milk (my daughter certainly did), and who wants to do battle over this "healthy" item—especially if it means their kid might go hungry?

I suggest that you develop a routine of milk twice (three times at most) at certain times (that don't interfere with meals) so your son knows when he'll have his milk. Predictability should minimize the pain for your son.

Then, tell your son about the new rules before you put them into place, and give him acceptable options for expressing his disappointment. Be clear about the behavior that you don't want to see (temper tantrum, etc.) and then,stick to your guns. Once your son gets used to the new habit everything will be fine.

Pay special attention to the times that your son wants milk that don't fit into the new habit to see if he's hungry or needing emotional support. Then care as called for.

Best,

Dina

July 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Our family loves to juice organic veggies and fruits. We've learned that greens like kale are fairly high in calcium and other great nutrients.

July 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Wise

Thank goodness, it's a relief to read this. My pediatrician has insisted that my 4yo drink milk, to the point that I should provide chocolate milk on a daily basis to get it in her. I thought that sounded ridiculous so I haven't done this, and I'm glad. My 4yo has a bad enough sweet tooth without cultivating it with a daily dose of chocolate milk! I'm still working on the leafy greens though...

July 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

Deborah: I agree with you that "using" chocolate milk isn't the way to go. Everything in good time. Greens will come.

Dina

July 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

My older child, now 9, decided about 4 years ago that she didn't like milk or cheese (except, haha, on pizza or quesadillas). Since she wasn't a huge milk drinker before that anyway but was growing just fine I didn't worry; she eats broccoli and kale, too. Interestingly, since we switched to whole organic milk, she occasionally asks for a glass of that. For both kids we use small glasses so they're not getting 16 oz in a sitting -- and the default drink is always water. For me the issue is usually not getting calcium into them, but getting some protein into them, especially in the morning since the older one doesn't care for eggs or yogurt. Sometimes she has leftovers from dinner for breakfast. Anyeay, digressing here, but I just wanted to chime in and agree that the milk-milk-milk push is unnecessary for many kids.

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee

Milk is no benefit to any adult who has enough other food sources of calcium. It is the hormones and antibiotics stuffed into the cows that makes both beef and milk cause more disease than they can save, and even organic has a lot of nutrition removed. (The fat comes from both the cow and the milk paid to the farmer by pound, not gallons.)

When I get milk it is usually goat, and only raw from where I know the farmer. Without knowing how the animals are raised, I will dump all of it down the drain.

marvin

February 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarvin L. Zinn

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