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Whole Milk: The Lowdown on Full Fat Milk

This post was created in partnership with the dairy families of New England.

Is whole milk good or bad for kids? Get the lowdown on whole milk including nutrition facts, the latest research on full fat milk, and my advice for including it in your family’s diet.

Whole Milk: The Full Fat Report for Kids. Is whole milk OK for our kids? There's a big picture to consider!

What You Will Learn about Whole Milk:

  • The current recommendations about whole milk for kids
  • The evolving research in kids and adults regarding whole milk
  • Nutrients available in whole milk including calcium and vitamin D
  • Recommendations for babies and toddlers

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.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend the same — after 2 years of age, switch to low fat dairy products.

For children who carry extra, unhealthy weight, the guidelines are to offer skim or low fat milk and dairy products, such as 1% low fat milk. This is to reduce the saturated fat and calories these higher fat products offer.

A Vitamin D supplement is recommended for all breastfed babies starting in the first few days of life.

Formula-fed babies receive vitamin D in their formula, however, until they reach an intake of 32 ounces daily of formula or transition to 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 additional supplementation.

What’s New? 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 the effects of the fat content in whole milk.

[If you don’t do dairy, be sure to read my article on Milk Alternatives – it compares the various milk substitutes 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 the right milk alternative.]

Recent research has started to highlight some interesting findings about the consumption of whole milk and its fat content. Namely, 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, questioning the advice of low fat and skim milk, particularly in early childhood with regard to its impact on weight and vitamin D status.

Whole Milk Nutrition Facts: Digging into the Research

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.

Meaning, 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 this relationship.

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 Studies Have Similar Results

A 2017 study looked at whole 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 full fat milk had lower odds of severe obesity.

A 2013 longitudinal 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 Whole 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.

Whole Milk: The Full Fat Report for Kids. Is whole milk OK for our kids? There's a big picture to consider!

How 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 curtail any extra eating.

The drawbacks of being too hungry can certainly curtail a child’s regulation with eating, leading to food-seeking behaviors, cravings, and overeating.

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 efficiently 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 looked at 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, like those found in nuts and fish, 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 improving 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), 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?

What about Whole Milk for Babies?

Babies should not be drinking any cow’s milk in the first year of life. It isn’t until age one that young children’s digestive systems are ready to fully handle whole milk.

If introduced too early, cow’s milk can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and contribute to iron deficiency anemia.

However, babies can eat plain, whole milk yogurt around 6 months (when you start solids). They can also have foods like pancakes and muffins that contain milk baked into them, though this would be around 8 -9 months of age.

Is Whole Milk Good for Toddlers?

Toddlers under the age of two years are encouraged to drink whole milk. This is because the whole milk fat is beneficial to their growth and development, especially with the need for nutrient-dense foods in their diet.

The current recommendations are to transition to a lower fat milk after age two, however, if your toddler is having difficulty gaining weight, you may want to stick with whole milk.

Read: 7 Tips for Feeding the Skinny Kid

Other News about Dairy

If you want to learn more about dairy, check out these articles:

6 Kid-Friendly Fermented Foods You Can Find in the Fridge

Non-Dairy Milk: 5 Facts You Should Know

Training for the Olympics and for Life with Gevvie Stone

How to Choose the Best Kids Yogurt

For information about the dairy farm families of New England, school nutrition, and health and wellness topics, please visit New England Dairy & Food Council and Must Be the Milk.

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  1. Thanks for sharing the current research on this topic, Jill. I have questioned whether I should switch to whole milk or at least 2% from skim, but have yet to make the change. I understand the reasoning for your son, but I’m curious why you also made the change.

    1. HI Jessica, I made the change for me because I enjoy the flavor and feel fuller (and eat more moderately) as a result. I also don’t have any issues with cholesterol or family history of obstructive cardiac disease. Plus, it’s easier to streamline products at the grocery store.

  2. Hi Jill, my daughters (3 and 5) drink full fat goat’s milk and yogurt. We chose goat’s milk for flavour rather than nutrition but I’ve always wondered if it’s nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk, also, goats milk seems to be easier to digest ( at least that’s how they sell it) . I would love to know your thoughts, thank you.

    1. Hi Gloria, I’ve read that goat’s milk has higher levels of calories and fat, as well as calcium and other nutrients. It’s also is easier to digest due to lower levels of lactose. The protein type is similar to cow’s milk, which is why many professionals advise avoidance if your child is allergic to cow’s milk. Side by side, they aren’t equivalent, but both offer a good balance of health promoting nutrition. It probably boils down to taste and what your kids prefer. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this review! For my kids (2 and 4) we’ve done a combination of plant and dairy milks – generally whole unless it’s yogurt (tough to find affordable whole milk yogurt in individual sizes – but we recently started making our own!). We add in the plant milk because they eat sooo much yogurt and cheese, I figure a little variety can only help.

    Do you have thoughts on the organic/grassfed vs conventional debate?

    1. We dug into this issue in detail in Fearless Feeding, but here is the lowdown: milk in general has one of the lowest pesticide residues (among all agricultural products) and is tested for antibiotics regularly. If any are found, the milk is thrown out and doesn’t make it to market. With organic milk, you can be assured cows will not receive any antibiotics or hormones, and are fed organic feed and given access to pasture. Organic is more expensive than conventional, mostly due to organic feed and access to pasture. Conventional production may use added man-made hormones (recombinant bovine somatotropin or rBST) to increase milk production in the call. Some are concerned that cows given rBST may have higher levels of insulin-like growth factor and thus higher risk of infections (mastitis), requiring antibiotic treatment.

  4. Hi Jill – my teenage son has been asking about switching to whole milk from skim (he is a competitive swimmer). My question is this – at the end of your article you mentioned that whole milk was more satisfying (which makes sense) but then went on to say that, for your son, it “provided bone-building nutrients, protein and carbs, fullness, and more…for his growing, athletic body.” – are you saying that whole milk has more nutrients/protein/carbs than skim or 2% milks? I just want to be sure I was reading that correctly. Thanks for writing this article!

    1. Hi Amy,
      Apologies if I was unclear! Whole milk has the same/similar levels of calcium, D, protein and carbs. The difference is there is more fat, which may enhance the absorption of vitamin D better than the other fat levels in milk.