Is Whole Milk a Better Choice to Prevent Childhood Obesity?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 21, 2013

glass-of-milkTLT reader and friend Mara sent me this interesting story from NPR’s The Salt blog which indicates that there could be a surprising link between skim milk consumption and excess weight gain in childhood.

A new study, which looked at 10,700 American children, found that preschoolers who drank 1% or skim milk had, on average, higher body weights than those who drank 2% or whole milk.  And The Salt lists two previous studies which also found a potential correlation between whole milk consumption and lower BMI.   One theory for these findings is that whole milk is more satiating, resulting in lower daily calorie consumption.

It’s important to note, however, that there’s no proven link here.  One commenter pointed out that some of the toddlers studied may have been heavier to begin with, and the skim milk was offered as a weight management tool, thus skewing the findings.  Similarly, the new study didn’t measure how many calories were consumed overall or nor did it look at the rest of the children’s diets.

Still, though, after the anti-fat craze in the 1990s (Snackwell, anyone?), I think many of us have come to realize that fats play an important role in making us feel satisfied and perhaps eat less overall.

Do any of you offer your children whole milk over skim or 1% milk?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sylvie March 21, 2013 at 10:47 am

Yes. I’m a real food advocate and strongly believe this.

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Alissa March 21, 2013 at 11:18 am

We are a whole milk/whole yogurt/full fat cheese family, and it’s very nice when studies come out supporting what makes so much intuitive sense to me. Just somehow seems crazy that a necessarily processed food (since low/non fat milk does not happen naturally) could possibly be more nutritious than the real version. And although I don’t agree, I actually think the argument that humans were not meant to drink cow’s milk altogether makes more sense than the idea that we were meant to drink 24 ounces of processed cow’s milk every day!

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

Like you (and Sylvie below), I’m trending more toward full-fat dairy, too, though my one milk-drinking child will only drink skim. Even 1% is too rich for her, she says.

But turning to that “we weren’t meant to drink cows’ milk” stance, it makes me impatient! I get the argument, in that yes, the dairy industry and our government have done a great job of making us feel dairy is essential to our health, which of course it is not. But were we “meant” to consume any of the things we eat and drink? Are we “meant” to ferment grapes and drink wine? Are we “meant” to eat the eggs of chickens? Are we “meant” to grind grain and use yeast to make bread?

Sorry for the rant – I know you weren’t espousing that position, but it’s just something that bugs me! :-)

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Alissa March 21, 2013 at 11:55 am

Haha, Bettina, I totally agree! What’s funny is that there are plenty of people who would also argue that we were not “meant” to eat any of the other things you mentioned, either ;) Personally, I’m equal opportunity – plant, meat, raw, cooked, grains, dairy, caffeine, alcohol…whatever, as long as it’s a real food. My point was just that I can at least follow the logic of the “no milk” argument more than the “let’s process it beyond all recognition, add sugar, artificial sweeteners, and other additives, and call it essential to human health” argument :)

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I totally understood and agreed with what you were saying. I was just being rant-y! :-)

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EdT. March 21, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I doubt that skim milk alone is causing the obesity epidemic, however I suspect it is part of a mindset that is contributing to the problem (low-to-no-fat foods, stuffed full of sugars and processed beyond all recognition, combined with an extreme sedentary school day due to lots of standardized tests, and topped off with a time allotment to eat that requires the kids to essentially inhale their food.)

That being said: I drank a mixture of milks (whole, 2%, 1%, and skim) when I was a child, and in addition I drank Coca-Cola instead of fruit juice and water – and yet I wasn’t considered “obese” until I hit my 30s (after I quit smoking, ironically enough.) I would prefer whole milk over the skim, “flavored” variety (whether the sweetener was HFCS, asparatame, or whatever.)

~EdT.

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Ilse Berg March 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Regardless of what we may have been “meant” to eat, it is a significant factor, I think, that cow’s milk is made to help calves grow quickly to a very large size. We use dairy in limited quantities, and we don’t drink it.

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Tammy March 21, 2013 at 4:28 pm

We’ve been debating this issue at home too. I started buying both 2% and skim and we’ll see how it goes. I wonder about the position that our ancestors only drank whole milk. Didn’t they always skim off the cream for butter? Is that not where the term “skim milk” came from? I’m always curious, I’ve seen that position taken a lot and that part of it doesn’t get addressed.

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lindtfree March 21, 2013 at 7:47 pm

Children should drink whole milk until age two for reasons pertaining to brain development (myelinization). After that, I personally would favor a gradual progression to skim milk: perhaps 2% until children start school, 1% in elementary school, and skim by middle school: the childhood obesity rate is high, and non-skim milk contains a lot of fat. Granted, it’s probably better to drink white whole milk than “flavored” lowfat milk, but why not white skim milk?

I drank whole milk until junior high, spent a transitional year drinking first 2% and then 1% until I decided I wanted to lose weight, and was completely switched to skim by age 14: as a child, I was always in the high normal/slightly overweight category, thanks in part to being more of a bookworm/artist than athlete and in part to body type. Because I was a frequent milk-drinker (and still am), skim milk helped me keep my weight down.

During the low-fat 1980s and 1990s, I often bought nonfat cottage cheese, Lite-Line “cheese” slices (yuck), and reduced-fat margarine, thinking not only of my weight but of my family’s significant history of heart disease. Then we learned about the dangers of transfats, and real butter (always verboten in my Fleischman’s and Promise childhood home, except for baking!) came to live in my refrigerator.

By the mid-2000s, I learned the fat that is bad for the heart is often good for the brain. What to do? I dislike whole, 2%, and even 1% milk, which I think taste too rich for beverages and would be too much fat for a frequent milk-drinker like myself to regularly consume. Therefore, we continue to drink skim milk and eat real butter. Cheese is not a frequent part of my diet, but I tend to purchase 2% cottage cheese, reduced-fat Swiss, and whole-milk mozzarella (which we prefer for purely aesthetic reasons!).

Regarding whether homo sapiens in general are “meant” to eat dairy or not. . .I cannot say. I only know that for me, giving up meat over 25 years ago was fairly easy. Giving up dairy would be nearly impossible. I admire vegans tremendously, but don’t think I could be one.

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Cady March 22, 2013 at 4:08 am

Yes, my 3 year old (and my husband and me too) drink only whole milk, and we try to only buy whole fat dairy products in genral. We made the switch from skim or 1% (for the adults) roughly two years ago when our local, organic CSA farmer began milking and selling half gallons at our weekly pick-up. I’d read about it on Lisa’s 100 Days of Real Food blog, and I believe Food Renegade’s blog as well. My husband’s family has diabetes starting for his father’s generation, so it seemed a good idea to get used to (less blood sugar spike, supposedly).

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Chris March 28, 2013 at 10:42 pm

We drink only whole milk, mostly on Cheerios, which my kids eat a lot of. My kids’ diets aren’t great, but they’re skinny kids, for whatever that’s worth. I attribute that mostly to the fact that we don’t drink sugary soft drinks and don’t do a lot of snacking between meals.

We buy only organic milk — not based on any actual assessment of evidence, but just on the suspicion/hope that it’s less likely to do us any harm.

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Sara May 17, 2013 at 8:33 pm

We drink very little milk, always whole, lots of cheese, yogurt, other dairy products. I am a firm believer that humans do not “need” to drink milk much after their toddler years. As an adult I only drink whole milk or cream, on my cereal or in my coffee, and I am very thin, but come from a family with weight problems. My siblings and I generally eat “normally” and do not suffer from the same obesity our mother and her family members did. Is this our dad’s genes? That probably has a lot to do with it. We also have a conviction not to obsess about food and eat sanely. Anyway, I find the thought of eating milk with lunch or dinner repulsive and can’t make my kids do it either. It makes me literally sick to my stomach. I had a hard time with milk in bottles too. I like my kids to get their calories from juice, which everyone is against. Oh well. In 10 years the pendulum will have swung back my way and I can say I said so all along.

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