With the growing focus on plant-forward living and so many plant-based milk alternatives on the market, I’m often asked by clients and media interviewers about my opinion on cow’s milk and whether I recommend full-fat, low-fat or skim.
The truth is, I would feel lost without whole cow’s milk each day in my morning tea or coffee and in a cup, warm or cold before bed. Yes, whole! As a dietitian who believes in the health and environmental benefits of a plant-forward lifestyle, I love that there are so many plant-based milk options available. Yet, for many years, I’ve kept multiple gallons of whole cow’s milk from a local farm in my fridge at any given time and have fed our children full-fat dairy products from the age of 1 onward.
Interestingly, we have one daughter who guzzles whole milk with at least two meals per day, another who can take it or leave it and another who strongly prefers soy and/or almond milks.
Cow’s milk itself is a hotbed of nutrition myths, misconceptions and misinformation. Even the word “milk” is currently the subject of great debate among industries who disagree over which beverages should be able to put the word “milk” on their label.
From a nutrient stand point, cow’s milk offers a well-balanced blend of macronutrients (high quality protein, carbohydrate, fat) as well as 9 essential nutrients and no added sugars. It is an important food source of calcium and vitamin D which are key nutrients for children and necessary for their growth, proper bone development and overall health.
If you like milk and tolerate it well, should you choose low-fat, skim or whole? Which should you give your kids? The recommendations are shifting which can lead to confusion. Here’s why:
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association (AHA) have long recommended that children over the age of 2 and children who are at risk for overweight and obesity are given low-fat or skim dairy products and that all breastfed babies receive vitamin D supplements beginning a few days after birth until they are drinking about 4 cups of whole milk per day at 1 year of age.
- As a part of a healthy lifestyle that lowers the risk of heart disease, the AHA recommends choosing non-fat and low-fat dairy products.
- The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is 600 IU per day from food sources or supplements for people from age 1 – 70.
- Recent scientific studies have started to call into the question whether non-fat and low-fat dairy have the beneficial effect on weight and vitamin D status that we once thought.
- Some studies have found that intake of milk that is lower in fat is associated with higher levels of body fat and BMI in children, compared with those who drink full-fat milk.
- In other recent studies, children who drank full-fat milk had higher blood levels of vitamin D than those who drank low-fat milk.
- Whole-fat dairy may not have the negative effect on cardiovascular health that we once thought. Check out this recent study!
Emerging research supporting the potential health benefits of whole milk makes sense. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that it needs fat to be absorbed by the body. Whole milk provides not only the vitamin D but also the nutrient that renders it bioavailable. Fat is also satisfying nutrient. Perhaps it is associated in recent studies with lower BMI and body fat because it satisfies the appetite and reduces excess eating.
In any case, when I work with clients one-on-one, I counsel people to consider cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives as a matter of nutrient needs, taste preferences, food sensitivities and allergies. For many people (including me!) full-fat dairy fits well into the context of a mostly plant-forward diet. The key is considering the diet in its entirety and deciding which type of milk best fits your needs and those of your family. For example, if your daily diet is high in sources of saturated fats like beef, bacon and butter, whole milk is probably not a wise choice because it tips your saturated fat intake into a less than optimal range. If you eat mostly plants, your saturated fat intake is likely lower which leaves more room for the saturated fat content in full-fat dairy products.
If you prefer to go with a plant-based milk alternative, learn more about available options here.
I love helping people achieve a balanced, mostly plant-based nutrition lifestyle that is satisfying, delicious and convenient. The right balance for my family and me is about 70-80% plant-based, with the remaining 20-30% made up of dairy, seafood, poultry and occasionally a little red meat. What ratio works for you and yours? I’d love to hear! Comment below…
Cheers to your good health,