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Helping Kids Milk Their Diet

We all know that milk provides kids with calcium and vitamin D, important nutrients that help them lay the foundation for healthy bones and teeth. Milk is also an important source of high quality protein, and provides the body with all the essential amino acids it needs to create body proteins with their many vital functions. Despite the many benefits, a recent study published in Physiology & Behavior found that since the late 1970’s, kids between the ages of 2 and 18 have substantially decreased their milk intake while turning more and more to sugar-sweetened beverages. According to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data from 2005-2006, kids get about 390 liquid calories each day; of that, 154 come from soda and fruit drinks, 130 come from whole milk, and about 28 come from low fat milk. The rest of the calories kids gulp down come from juices, diet drinks, and other caloric beverages.

There is some good news. Even though kids may not be getting enough milk in their diet, they are consuming more and more of their milk calories from lower fat options like skim and 1% milk, and less from whole milk. This helps them get plenty of vital nutrients—protein, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, folate, and vitamin C—and less total fat and saturated fat.
So how do you help your kids improve their beverage selections? Here are some ways to help your kids milk their diet in the most heart-healthy way:

1. Make a gradual milk switch. Although whole milk is appropriate for infants and toddlers to support their growth and higher fat needs, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reduced fat (2%) milk for children between 1 and 2 years of age who are at risk of becoming overweight or have family members who are overweight or obese, or have high blood cholesterol levels or heart disease. When children reach the age of 2, parents can offer low fat milks; if after a few tries your child doesn’t like the taste of 1% or skim milk, you can mix whole or 2% milk with 1% or skim milk—this can help kids get used to the thinner texture of the lower fat milks. Since there’s no difference in terms of nutrients between organic and regular milk, either option can help kids meet their nutrient needs to help them grow optimally.

2. Meet the milk quota. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend the equivalent of 2 cups of milk per day. 1 cup of skim milk or plain non-fat yogurt, 1-1/2 ounces of hard cheese, or 2 ounces of processed cheese all count as approximately 1 cup of milk. If your child likes the taste of flavored milks and yogurts, they too count towards their milk quote. Because they have extra calories also count towards discretionary calories (these are calories kids can have from added sugars and fats in the diet; most kids have between 150 and 200 extra calories to play with). If you give your kids flavored milk or sugar-sweetened yogurt, be sure to count those extra calories (and perhaps skip a cookie or other sugary treat later in the day).

3. Find other options. If, for whatever reason, your child can’t or won’t drink milk or have any calcium-rich dairy foods, be sure to offer him or her other several calcium-rich food options each day; these include white or navy beans, spinach, kale, cabbage, tofu, canned pink salmon or sardines, canned stewed tomatoes, and calcium-enriched foods and beverages such as orange juice, whole grain English muffins, and soy milk.

4. Limit liquid candy. Of course it’s ok to let your child have more than just water (though water is the best, lowest calorie, all around great hydrator) to quench their thirst. If kids like 100% fruit juice like orange juice, they can have some (no more than 1/2 cup to 1 cup/day is ideal); it counts toward their daily quota for fruit. But sugar-sweetened beverages including soda, fruit drinks, and energy drinks need to count as discretionary or extra calories, and should be viewed as once-in-a-while treats rather than dietary staples.

Originally published on RDs Weigh In on Feb 10, 2010:

Sources: Popkin, B. M. Patterns of beverage use across the lifecycle, Physiol Behav 2010, Jan 4;

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized and award-winning health and nutrition expert, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books. An avid walker, she loves motivating others to #moveitorloseit. A book lover, she recently earned a certificate in children’s literature from Stony Brook Southampton and is currently working on several young adult novels. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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