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Milk and Dairy in Healthy Childhood Eating Patterns

Evidence supporting milk and dairy's role in healthy childhood eating patterns.

Read evidence supporting dairy's role in healthy childhood eating patterns.

1) Key Message

Dairy foods play an important role in plant-based, sustainable eating patterns. 

Research Summary

Scientific research confirms that milk, yogurt and cheese offer a unique package of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, potassium and more, that work together to provide multiple health benefits including optimal growth and development in children and reduced risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The wide variety of milk and dairy foods available provides many options to meet personal needs, tastes and preferences.  

Alongside obesity and chronic disease is the interrelated issue of food insecurity, which serves as a reminder that solving complex public health problems require a broad range of solutions and a zealous application of credible science. From that perspective, we then look at nutrition recommendations and healthy eating guidance through the lens of whole foods and, ultimately, healthy eating patterns as the optimal way to obtain nutritional adequacy while supporting the health of both people and the planet.  

Dairy foods offer health attributes that are different from plant-based and other animal source foods, playing an integral role in supporting overall health. This is especially true for growing young children and adolescents where dairy food consumption is essential for optimal growth and development. The three eating patterns recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) emphasize consuming a variety of plant-based foods, but it also recommends consuming dairy in order to meet nutritional needs and reduce the risk for chronic diseases. While these recommendations are clear, many Americans are under-consuming vegetables, fruits and dairy, resulting in nutrient gaps.1 Encouraging consumption of nutrient dense foods, both from plant-based and dairy sources, can help close the nutrient gaps that exist among Americans of all ages.  

2) Key Message

Milk and dairy foods support optimal growth and development in children. 

Research Summary  

Dairy milk, in comparison to plant-based alternative beverages, offers the most balanced distribution of energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat; and coupled with its unique nutrient package, dairy milk can be difficult to replace in a healthy dietary pattern.2 Young children who do not meet the daily recommended servings of dairy milk, yogurt or cheese may have inadequate intakes of important nutrients and protein necessary for optimal growth and development. 

Milk is an important source of essential nutrients that contribute to overall health in children’s eating patterns, but by age 6, most children are not meeting the recommended daily servings from the Dairy food group.3 Poor eating patterns, especially in early childhood, can continue as habits in adulthood, increasing the risk for becoming overweight and developing chronic conditions such as heart disease.  

There is compelling evidence linking food insecurity to poor health outcomes,4 heightening health sector urgency to seek solutions to close this gap. With so many children and families living with food insecurity, providing access to nutritious and wholesome foods is essential to helping children reach their full health potential as adults. Recommendations put forward to improve healthy eating serve as a catalyst for changes in public policy that may ultimately determine the food choices available to our most vulnerable populations through nutrition assistance programs. One example of this critical safety net is school meal programs. Research suggests that eating school breakfast every day is associated with healthier dietary intakes among U.S. schoolchildren, particularly increased intakes of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy.5 Additionally, student consumption of breakfast, specifically the  fruits, vegetables and dairy products made readily available in school meal programs, is associated with improved academic and health outcomes among children and adolescents.6 

Milk, cheese and yogurt provide many essential nutrients important for good health. Consuming the recommended amount of dairy foods would go a long way in closing the gap on some nutrient intakes, including nutrients of concern such as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin A.7  

Recommendations for the public that generally restrict or eliminate animal protein without focusing on the whole food matrix or healthy eating patterns could unintentionally limit access to and the consumption of nutritious, nutrient-rich foods like milk and dairy foods. Ensuring that public health nutrition guidance is evidenced-based makes it easier to create opportunities for children and families to access nutritious foods in the communities where they live, learn, work and play.  

The dairy agricultural community takes sustainability and improving food and nutrition security very seriously; they are committed to being part of the solution by continually improving sustainable production of essential, nutrient-rich dairy foods worldwide.  

1. Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System Interactive Charts & Highlights. USDA ERS. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-per-capita-data-system/interactive-charts-and-highlights/. Updated October 29, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2019. 
2. Vanga SK & Raghavan V. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? J Food Sci Technol. 2018;55(1):10-20. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y. Published November 2, 2017. Accessed March 13, 2019. 
3. Krebs-Smith SM, Guenther PM, Subar AF et al. Americans do not meet federal dietary recommendations. J Nutr. 2010;140(10):1832-8. doi:10.3945/jn.110.124826. Published October 1, 2010. Accessed May 21, 2018. 
4. Holben DH, Marshall MB. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Food insecurity of the United States. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017;117(2):1991-2002. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2017.09.027. Published December 2017. Accessed May 21, 2018. 
5. Ramsay SA, Bloch TD, Marriage B et al. Skipping breakfast is associated with lower diet quality in young US children. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2018;72:548-56. doi:10.1038/s41430-018-0084-3. Published January 24, 2018. Accessed May 21, 2018. 
6. Bradley BJ, Greene AC. Do health and education agencies in the United States share responsibility for academic achievement and health? A Review of 25 Years of Evidence About the Relationship of Adolescents’ Academic Achievement and Health Behaviors. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52(5):523-32. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.01.008. Published March 26, 2013. Accessed May 21, 2018. 
7. Quann EE, Fulgoni VL, Auestad N. Consuming the daily recommended amounts of dairy products would reduce the prevalence of inadequate micronutrient intakes in the United States: diet modeling study based on NHANES 2007–2010. Nutr J. 2015;14(90). doi:10.1186/s12937-015-0057-5. Published September 4, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2018.