Is Reduced-Fat Milk Right For Kids? It May Be Time to Change USDA Guidelines

reduced-fat milk
Photo by @criene for Twenty20

We do not have milk in our home and rarely carry dairy products. I have personally seen the effects it has had on my seasonal allergies, my son’s eczema, my mother’s migraines, and my daughter’s nasal congestion. Sporadically, I will treat my family to yogurt, cheese, and ice cream because they are delicious. However, when I shop for yogurt and other dairy snacks, the majority of the brands marketed to kids use reduced-fat milk or non-fat milk.

The USDA recommends 2-3 glasses of 1% or skim milk to kids over the age of one because they believe, based on a flawed 1960s study, that dietary fat increases heart disease and weight gain. Given this, and the common misconception that milk is the only source of dietary calcium, it is no wonder low-fat milk and dairy snacks are offered in such abundance. The truth is that dietary fat is an essential nutrient and calcium is a trace mineral found in most natural foods. Moreover, because reduced-fat milk is so processed, there is little proof it helps build strong bones as the commercials claim. When my daughter entered preschool, I was shocked to find her school gave them low-fat milk twice a day, and at least one other dairy snack. If my kids are going to have dairy, they should have whole milk in moderation. With dairy allergies soaring and childhood obesity at an all time high, isn’t it time the nutrition guidelines change?

The 1960s Study Linking Fat to Disease

The war on fat stems from the 1958 Seven Country Study by Dr. Keys, who wanted to prove there was a link between fats consumed to coronary disease. However, his study was full of holes and he cherry-picked countries that supported his theory, while ignoring ones like France and Holland where people consumed high fats and had low rates of heart disease. Based off this study, our government published the first dietary guidelines reducing dietary fats, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium intake, and increasing whole grains and vegetables—despite criticism from many respected scientists including the American Medical Association. Unfortunately, immediately after the new guidelines were published, there was a spike in obesity and the type II diabetes epidemic began.

Calcium Is a Trace Mineral

Calcium is a trace mineral, meaning it comes from the earth and is in everything water touches, such as eggs, meat, chicken, fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, seaweed, grains, and more. Moreover, recent studies show we do not need as much as the USDA recommends. In fact, men and women who took more than 1200 mg of calcium daily were at higher risk of strokes and heart attacks from elevated blood calcium levels. Kids do not need dairy to meet their calcium requirements if they are consuming a balanced diet.

Fat Is An Essential Nutrient

It seems logical that if someone has too much fat, they should stop consuming fat. However, that is not how it works: You are more likely to be overweight by avoiding fat. Fat is more caloric than carbs or proteins, so a small amount will keep you full longer. By avoiding fats, people tend to eat more to make up for missing calories, have mood swings from blood sugar spikes, and suffer energy crashes. A recent study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that women who ate full-fat dairy products lowered their risk of being overweight or obese by 8%. While another study analyzing 10,700 preschoolers between the age of 2 and 4 found that those who drank 1% milk had the highest BMIs across all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status. By removing the fat from milk, we are increasing our kids’ risk of diabetes and obesity.

Fat is also responsible for nutrient absorption, hormone regulation, production of estrogen and testosterone, cell production, and brain development (your brain is 60% fat). Kids need high levels of fat to help their brains develop, build their immune systems, and regulate hormones. Stored in the body, fat is exclusively used for energy for daily tasks. In order to reap the benefits listed above, fats need to be consumed regularly with meals.

A notorious type of fatty acid, cholesterol, helps create vitamin D and clean up buildup of LDLs (bad cholesterol) in the arteries. Consuming plant-based fats and pasture-raised animals increases HDL (good cholesterol) levels, which reduces reduce the risk of heart disease. However, this isn’t a free pass to fill up on French fries and Gorditas. Bad fats such as trans fats, overly processed foods, and poor quality animal products will still have a negative effect on cholesterol, heart disease, and weight. Reduced-fat milk lacks one of the most essential nutrients to make it a healthy food for growing kids: fat.

Whole Fat Milk Is Perfectly Balanced

If you can tolerate it, whole milk is kind of a superfood. It has the perfect balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to regulate blood sugars and keep you satiated. It also contains a ton of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that work synergistically to build muscle, bones, and immunity. Fat soluble vitamins A, E, K and D each play a vital role in this process, however by removing the fat, the vitamins go with it. Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption. Without it, blood calcium levels can reach dangerous levels and lead to cardiac disease and strokes. Vitamin A is important for visual health, healthy hair and skin, and the immune system. Vitamin E is an antioxidant which counteracts free radicals and helps prevent and repair cell damage. Vitamin K is an essential fat soluble vitamin, which can only come from fatty foods, that helps blood clot and plays a critical role in building strong bones. By removing the fat in whole milk, the essential vitamins that help kids grow strong and healthy are missing. Low-fat milk can’t even compete in this health race.

Reduced-Fat Milk is Highly Processed

When I was a child growing up in Europe, my family bought raw milk in bags daily. I had to boil it to kill off bacteria and then I would strain it to remove chunky bits of fat. As inconvenient as that was, at least we knew what we were consuming and dairy sensitivity was not common.

In America, all milk is pasteurized to remove bacteria and increase shelf life. The process kills many of the enzymes, including those that help digest milk. It is also homogenized, to prevent floating fat globules and the cream on top. Whether or not pasteurization and homogenization is healthy has been widely debated.

Reduced-fat milk takes it a step further. When the cream is skimmed off, the fat soluble vitamins go with it, so dairy producers fortify their milk with synthetic vitamins A and D. What is left is a flavorless, chalky liquid that is then enhanced with powdered milk solids to make up for the lost proteins and calcium. Without the natural fat and vitamins that help absorb calcium, there is a risk for elevated blood calcium levels. Reduced-fat milk doesn’t smell, taste or look anything like raw whole milk, so why are we giving this processed liquid to our kids?

It’s Time the Dietary Guidelines Change

Reduced-fat milk lacks the vitamins that help it build strong bones, it lacks the fat kids need for growing bodies, and it has been linked to increases in obesity and diabetes. Our government is pushing 2-3 servings of reduced-fat milk on our kids despite contradicting research. Fats are essential for brain development, immunity, nutrient absorption, and hormone production and regulation. By stigmatizing fats, in dairy or otherwise, we are unintentionally harming our kids and ourselves. Moreover, by filling up on 8 ounces of milk per meal, kids are missing out on other nutritious foods. With all the available research, it is time our government update their guidelines and for schools to offer more wholesome snacks. I recommend a varied and balanced diet, with an emphasis on avoiding processed foods, including reduced-fat milk.

What are your thoughts on reduced-fat v. whole milk? Share your opinions and learnings below!