This post was created in partnership with the dairy families of New England.
When I had my babies, way back when and over 20 years ago, the practice at the time was to offer whole milk from age one to five years.
I followed that practice to a tee.
If I’m to be transparent, I also didn’t offer a vitamin D supplement regularly. And although the vitamin D message was given to me, four times (!), it wasn’t as strong, or as clear as it is today.
As a result, I didn’t pay too much attention to supplemental vitamin D. I relied on milk, fish, and other sources to supply my children’s needs.
Over the years, the recommendations about milk have changed for children, as have the vitamin D policies.
The Current Stance on Whole Milk
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend low fat or skim milk for children after they turn 2 years.
For children who carry extra, unhealthy weight, the guidelines are to offer skim or low fat milk and dairy products. This is to reduce the saturated fat and calories these higher fat products offer.
Vitamin D is recommended for all breastfed babies starting in the first few days of life, until they are drinking at least one liter (32 ounces) of whole milk each day at 12 months of age.
Formula-fed babies receive vitamin D in their formula, however, until they reach an intake of 32 ounces daily of formula or whole milk at 12 months, they also need vitamin D supplementation.
All children and adults need 600 IU of vitamin D per day from age one to old age, from food and/or supplementation.
Whole Milk Advice May be Changing
In recent years I’ve experienced some guilt around the fact that I gave my kids whole milk early in their life, especially in light of the current recommendations.
I’ve certainly had my guilty pangs over their lack of vitamin D supplementation.
But, in my defense, the advice was different back then…
Yet, today, nutrition science marches on and we’re learning more about full fat milk for children and whole milk fat content.
[If you don’t do dairy, be sure to read my article on Milk Alternatives – it compares the various different milks so you can choose the best option for your child and family.]
[And my article on non-dairy milk will alert you to some of the considerations for choosing milk substitutes.]
Recent research has started to highlight some interesting findings about the consumption of whole milk and whole milk fat content and the influence on weight and vitamin D status in children.
What I am about to showcase is not the end-all be-all on research; some of these studies have limitations.
However, the evidence is starting to mount and question the advice of low fat and skim milk, particularly in early childhood with regard to its impact on weight and vitamin D status.
Nutrition Facts: What the Research is Saying
In a 2016 study out of Canada, researchers looked at over 2700 healthy children aged 1 to 6 years. They evaluated the fat content of milk and its influence on weight and vitamin D status, and whether the volume of milk consumed made a difference.
Their findings are interesting:
With every 1% increase in milk fat content, the blood level of vitamin D went up, significantly.
Children who consumed whole milk had higher vitamin D levels than children who consumed 1% milk.
The average child who drank whole milk had lower body fat (as measured by BMI z-score (a measure of the deviation from the standard BMI expected for weight, age and gender) than a child who consumed 1% milk.
The BMI z-scores represented the difference between “healthy weight” and “overweight.”
Children who consumed 1 cup of whole milk per day had a blood vitamin D concentration comparable to children who consumed almost 3 cups of 1% milk.
The authors raise the possibility that our current recommendations for low fat or skim milk in the early childhood years may contribute to low vitamin D status and higher body fatness.
Of course, this is just one study, albeit large. As I mentioned, it has its limitations, particularly around the lack of establishing a causal relationship.
For example, if your child drinks whole milk, then your child will have a higher vitamin D level and lower body fatness. The design of this study was unable to establish causality.
Nonetheless, this study and others are interesting, and provide pause and cause for additional research.Whole Milk: Yay or Nay? I dig in to some of the research about full fat milk for kids. #ad #dairyfoods #fearlessfeeding #eatlikeachampion Click To Tweet
Other Whole Milk Studies Have Similar Results
A 2017 study looked at full fat milk consumption in severely obese low income Latino children aged 3 years old.
In performing a 24-hour dietary recall, they found that these children were less likely to consume any milk, but if they did, it was skim milk.
Furthermore, those who did consume whole fat milk had lower odds of severe obesity.
A 2013 study found that 2- and 4-year-olds who drank 2% milk or whole milk had lower (body fat) BMI z-scores than kids who drank 1% or skim milk, and also had lower odds of having weight problems.
In British children, a 2014 study showed that kids who drank higher fat milk at age 10 had lower risk of extra body fat at age 13.
Some Full Fat Milk Studies Were Different
A 2006 study showed no association between the percentage of milk fat consumed and child weight among 2- to 5-year-olds.
In 2005, one study found that whole milk fat content was not associated with weight changes in teens, but did find that consumption of 1% milk and skim milk was linked to increases in BMI.
While we don’t have tons of research in kids on this topic, those that exist have either found no influence of full fat milk on weight and vitamin D status, or have found a protective effect.
Why Whole Milk Might Help
Some of the studies mention the satiating effect of full fat milk on a child’s appetite. In other words, children may get full faster and hold that fullness longer, helping them better regulate extra eating.
Since vitamin D is a fat soluble nutrient (it needs fat to be absorbed), there is the possibility that the higher fat content of milk helps vitamin D be better absorbed in the body.
Should You Make the Switch to Whole Milk?
This is a really good question. I think it requires a bigger glimpse at the body of research rather than simply looking at the outcomes of the earlier research I showcased.
A 2017 PLoS One review and meta-analysis of saturated fat and trans-saturated fat intake among children and teens.
Researchers concluded that reducing saturated fat intake to less than 10% significantly reduced total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and blood pressure in children.
These effects were greatest when saturated fat was replaced with polyunsaturated fats or mono-unsaturated fats, and they did not compromise children’s growth, cognitive development or nutrient intake.
The authors advised reducing the intake of highly processed fried food, fast foods and snacks, processed meats and fatty meats, while increasing high fiber fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean meats and reduced fat dairy foods as a core approach to children’s diets.
Food Balance and Whole Milk
As a pediatric nutritionist, I believe it’s all about food balance. If you make the switch to full fat milk, I would advise you take a birds eye view of your family’s diet.
Is it relatively low in overall fat? And, of the fat sources in your family’s diet, are they primarily plant-based and mono-unsaturated fats?
If your family eats a high fat diet already, such as hitting the fast food drive through, favoring fried foods and desserts and high fat meats on the regular, then moving to full fat milk may not be optimal.
That is, until you temper the total fat and saturated fat in your family’s diet.
However, if your family has a healthy fat consumption pattern, including plenty of plant fats (avocado, olives, plant oils, etc) and other healthy fats (like the ones found in fish) in your regular diet, then a switch to full fat milk could make sense.
[Can’t get your kiddo to eat fish? Be sure to read: 5 Tips to Help Your Child Eat Fish]
Personally, I’ve made the switch. I’ve done a “360” over the past couple of years when it comes to full fat milk and dairy products.
As I mentioned, for the first 5 years of life, all of my children received whole dairy products: milk, yogurt, and cheese. Since my boy entered adolescence, I made the strategic switch back to full fat milk and dairy products, even for myself.
For him, it was more satisfying and provided bone-building nutrients, protein and carbs, fullness, and more (even though he opts for lactose-free milk) for his growing, athletic body.
And that guilt I felt for all those years? I think it’s balancing itself out…
I’m curious, do you give your child whole milk?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: June 13, 2018
Updated on: May 10, 2019