Over the last 40 years or more, milk consumption has been declining. In fact, an age-related decline in consumption of all dairy foods begins in early childhood and remains below recommended levels for adults of all ages. Although consumption of some sugar-sweetened beverages has declined in recent years in some subgroups of the population, sugar-sweetened beverages (not including milk or 100 percent fruit juices) account for almost half the added sugars consumed in the U.S. This trade-off between milk and sugar-sweetened or non-nutritive beverages illustrates one characteristic of a population in which two-thirds of individuals are overweight and many are not meeting nutrient recommendations. But how do these trends influence child health?
First of all, the percent of calories from added sugars is highest among children, adolescents, and young adults. As health and wellness professionals, we recognize that many lifestyle factors impact health. So we don’t expect one strategy to singlehandedly improve child health. But there is evidence that replacing sugary beverages with low-fat or fat-free milk in children’s meals and snacks, may be linked to improved childhood health in more ways than one.
1. Healthy weight: A recent modelling study found that substituting milk for sugary drinks (sugar-sweetened carbonated and fruit-flavored drinks; fruit juice), predicted lower weight gain and less increase in body mass index over time (1.5 years) among Danish children 2-6 years predisposed to future weight gain. The authors conclude that “Milk may be a good alternative to sugary drinks with regard to weight management among young, obesity-predisposed children.”
2. Bone health: When milk is displaced by soft drinks in children’s diets, it is associated with reduced consumption of calcium and other nutrients found in milk that are important for bone development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that more healthful beverages, such as real fruit and vegetable juices, water and low-fat white or flavored milk, replace soft drinks at school.
3. Nutrient adequacy: The consumption of beverages with added sugar – such as juice drinks, soda pop, and sports drinks -- in young children has been associated with lower overall diet quality and not meeting recommendations for several nutrients. A paper addressing the role of dairy beverages in the diet highlights evidence that individuals who do not drink milk often do not meet recommended amounts of calcium, vitamin D and potassium, suggesting that they are not getting these nutrients from other foods and beverages.
Given concerns about children’s weight status, diet quality and overall health, let’s have a conversation with parents, educators and child caretakers about why children should drink milk. Encourage them to replace some of the nutrient poor beverages young children are currently drinking with nutrient-rich low-fat and fat-free milk. In fact, replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with low-fat or fat-free milk is one strategy suggested by the new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines to reduce consumption of added sugars.
It’s important to establish the habit of drinking milk when children are young, as “those who consume milk at an early age are more likely to do so as adults.” Just like adults, most children like variety, so offering options from white and flavored milk to a smoothie or mixing milk in foods like soups and oatmeal, can help keep it on the daily menu!