5 Nutrition Facts About Milk and Healthy Kids

Including some surprising things about whole milk, flavored milk, and lactose intolerance.

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Here are five things you should know about your kids and milk:

1. They need to drink more. Milk contains nine essential nutrients and vitamins, including protein, vitamins A, D, and B12, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, and magnesium. Children who drink milk tend to have "superior" overall nutrient intakes compared with children who don't drink milk, according to a study released last year by researchers at Environ International Corp., the University of Vermont, and the National Dairy Council. Yet only a third to a half of American children and adolescent boys consume the government-recommended number of dairy servings, and fewer than one in five adolescent girls meets the recommendation. Adolescents should drink three 8-ounce glasses of reduced-fat or skim milk (or equivalent products, such as yogurt) daily.

2. Many parents don't know whether their kids to drink whole milk, 2 percent, 1 percent, or fat-free. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended whole milk, usually 3.5 percent to 4 percent fat, for children up to age 2 because saturated fats are needed for brain development. "Eighty percent of brain development occurs in the first two years of life, so you want the fat at that point," says Frank R. Greer, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and chairman of the AAP's nutrition committee.

For kids over the age of 2, it's best to serve reduced-fat milk (either 1 or 2 percent). "That's primarily because kids get lots of fat in their diets. And milk, though it has lots of nice nutrients in it, you don't need as a source of fat," Greer says.

3. Not all toddlers should drink whole milk. Because obesity is a risk factor for heart disease and often is accompanied by cholesterol problems, the pediatrics academy now recommends low-fat milk (no more than 2 percent fat) for 1-year-olds for whom weight or obesity is a concern, Greer says. That new advice is aimed at 1-year-olds who are already overweight, have overweight parents, or have a family history of heart problems. Very young children are increasingly getting fats from sources other than milk.

Obesity is a serious health concern for children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The level of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. The rate among 12- to 19-year-olds more than tripled, increasing from 5 percent to 17 percent; for children aged 2 to 5 years, it increased from 5 percent to 12.4 percent.

4. Drinking flavored milk isn't all bad. Limiting children and teens' access to flavored milk may only lead to the undesirable effect of cutting nutrient intake. Flavored milk is better than none at all, even though it has more sugar and slightly higher calorie content than unflavored milk. It's a nutrient-rich package providing the same nine essential nutrients as plain milk. Each 8-ounce serving of milk—plain or flavored—provides 300 mg of calcium, which is a fourth of the daily calcium requirement for children. While flavored milk contains both natural and added sugars (nearly half of the sugar in flavored milk is naturally present in the milk), it contains less added sugar than other beverages that kids drink, such as carbonated soft drinks. On average, according to the CDC, an 8-ounce low-fat (or 1 percent) flavored milk contains 158 calories, while low-fat plain milk contains 105. A 12-ounce servicing of apple juice, by comparison, contains 192 calories, and 12 ounces of lemon-lime soda contains 148 calories, without the nutrients in milk.

5. Even lactose-intolerant kids may be able to stomach some milk or dairy products . The AAP advises parents to not give up on feeding dairy products to lactose-intolerant children and teens. The reason: The calcium in these foods is important for bone health, and dairy products also contain other nutrients important for growth.


Corrected on : Corrected on 3/23/09: Pediatrician Frank Greer said he misspoke in a quotation appearing in an earlier version of this article. He was referring to the first two years of life, not the first year only.