An expert’s answer to 7 questions about dairy and non-dairy milk

October 14, 2019

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It is no surprise the sheer amount of non-dairy milk options and opinions circulating our society and grocery stores today. As a result, choosing a milk for your child can quickly become a source of confusion.

Questions like: should my child stop drinking dairy milk? Are plant-based milks a good substitute for diary milk? Does chocolate milk supply the nutrients my child needs?

These are all questions Kristi King, senior clinical dietician Texas Children’s, answers below to help you make an informed decision about your child’s dietary needs.

Should I substitute cow milk for plant-based milk?

Many plant-based milks lack adequate calcium, vitamin D, protein and fat, that children younger than 5 require for adequate growth and development. On the other hand, cow’s milk is a great source of protein; calcium; vitamins A, D and B12; potassium; phosphorus; riboflavin; and niacin. Having such a nutrient-dense product is essentially unmatched in plant-based milks which are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk. In fact, many plant-based milks also have added sugars which you want to avoid giving to young children.

Is it a good idea to combine both dairy and plant-based milk?

A combination of dairy and plant-based milks could be doable if it fits the family goals. Plant-based milks tend to be more expensive, so purchasing more than one type of beverage might not be feasible for families. You also need to ensure your child is meeting nutrient requirements with a well-balanced diet if both types of milk are given. 

Why does my child need vitamin D and calcium?

Vitamin D is essential in helping to regulate calcium absorption in the body. The calcium is used to build strong bones. Most, 90%, of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18 for females and 20 for males. Therefore, it is extremely important our children start with a good foundation to build strong bones for life.

My child has a dairy allergy, what type of milk should I give them?

Fortified soy milk is recognized by the USDA as the allowable substitute for federal programs such as WIC (The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) or school meals. If a patient is allergic to dairy and soy, other beverages can be used; however, this should be done under the supervision of a registered dietitian and/or pediatrician to ensure your child is meeting all of their nutrient needs.

My picky child will only drink chocolate milk, is that an OK substitute?

That was the thinking in the past. However, sugar guidelines were released and we know it is recommended children younger than 2 should not be given added sugars and those older than 2 years of age should be limited to less than 25 grams of added sugars per day (6 teaspoons). Flavored milks have added sugars which we are trying to limit as much as possible.

Should I feed my child whole milk yogurt or low-fat yogurt?

For young children, whole milk yogurt is ideal to provide additional fats the body and brain may need. For older children, lower-fat yogurt can be worked into an overall healthy diet. The key is to look for a yogurt with minimal added sugars and use something such as fresh fruit to sweeten it.

Are dairy allergies the only reason to take my child off dairy milk?

Yes; early childhood is the prime time for development. Dairy milk has proven over time to be an excellent nutrient-dense food beneficial to overall health. If a child has a dairy allergy (or family preference to avoid dairy), I highly encourage families to work with a registered dietitian and/or nutritionist to ensure adequate nutrients are being provided.