Toddlers: Whole or low-fat milk for your toddler?

Should a child under the age of two drink whole or low-fat milk?

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Milk is an excellent source of calcium and protein. The fat it provides is also substantial for those drinking whole milk. Does a child under two need the fat contained in whole milk? To answer your question, it is important to understand what we now know about the need for fat in the diet of children.

Limiting the amount of fat in the adult diet clearly has health benefits. And it has been known for quite a long time that atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is a process that actually begins in infancy and accelerates during the teenage years. It makes sense that trying to prevent this process as early as possible would allow for the best health benefits. However, the biggest concern with limiting children’s intake of fat has been the fear that the calories lost would be too great to allow for adequate growth. So, over the past ten years, the benefits of a “heart-smart” low fat diet have been examined in adolescents and children with interesting results. Children over the age of two who are given a diet that contains the classic heart-healthy diet (28 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent from saturated fat, and low cholesterol) show no growth difficulties. These studies are now extending to include children under 24 months to see if this type of diet is healthy for this age group as well.

It is currently felt that the fat intake of children under the age of two should not be limited. Therefore, these children should receive whole milk. It may be that future research shows that limiting fat in this age group is preferred, but for now, the facts just aren’t there to support it. However, for children over two years, the story is different and should no longer be considered controversial. The typical US diet (including that for children) contains more than 30 percent calories from fat, so when it comes to the choice of milk, it ought to be based upon how much fat is entering the child’s diet from other sources. If the fat from other foods and drink constitutes more than 30 percent of the child’s total calories, then skim milk is a wise choice. If, however, the child already has a low-fat diet, then two percent or even whole milk might be best. Discussing your child’s diet with the doctor or nutritionist can help decide which is best.

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