As a parent, you’re always trying to feed your children right. You’re making sure they drink three glasses of low-fat or skim milk every day, even if you have to add chocolate to it, because your child’s pediatrician says you should, because the government says you should, because prestigious health organizations say you should.
But, like so much in nutrition these days, those recommendations may not be as clear-cut as we think.
In a recent editorial in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, two physicians and nutrition researchers question the science behind promoting low-fat milk consumption, and particularly the practice of sweetening milk.
There really isn’t much evidence to support the idea that skim and low-fat milk lead to better health outcomes than whole milk does.
Low-fat foods do not necessarily lower calorie intake. Yes, low-fat milk contains fewer calories than whole milk, but there isn’t much evidence that consuming lower calorie beverages results in lower calorie intake. The doctors argue that reduced-fat foods and beverages may not be as satisfying to consumers, so they end up eating or drinking more and taking in more calories in the process.
“Suppose a child, who habitually consumes a cup of whole milk and two 60-kcal cookies for a snack, instead had nonfat milk. Energy intake with that snack would not decrease if that child felt less satiated and consequently ate just one extra cookie,” write Willet and Ludwig. The substitution of refined starch and sugar in the cookie for the fat in whole milk could actually cause weight gain.
Whole milk fell out of favor because of its saturated fat content and tendency to increase “bad” cholesterol levels, a big risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The authors point out that drinking low-fat milk could lead people to eat more high-glycemic index foods which raise the level of blood triglycerides, a risk factor for heart attack.
There has been debate in recent years over serving flavored milk to children, particularly as to whether it should be offered in school cafeterias. Many school children don’t like low-fat milk, so school cafeterias serve reduced-fat chocolate milk, which children do like.
Though substituting reduced-fat chocolate milk for whole milk lowers saturated fat by three grams, it increases sugar intake by 13 grams per cup. In a population which already consumes too much sugar, is this a good idea?
All agree that milk is a nutrient-rich food, providing protein and many other nutrients needed by both children and adults. Willet and Ludwig question the assumption that low-fat milk is healthier than whole milk, saying that the scientific evidence just isn’t there.
They also question whether people who eat high-quality diets that include green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and adequate protein derive any benefit from drinking milk.
Perhaps, suggest the doctors, until more research is done, guidelines for milk intake should be changed to zero to three cups per day, avoid recommending low-fat milk over whole milk, and focus on limiting consumption of sweetened milk.