Milk it! Nutritional benefits of milk in growing bodies
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
Whether it be full cream, used to make ice cream, lactose free or transformed into brie, milk has been and continues to be a staple food in the human diet since the dawn of time. We are born into the world reliant on breastmilk (and/or infant formula), it is used as a core food to promote growth and development of our bones and teeth in childhood and adolescents, and even as we age, our dependence on milk for protein and micronutrients is paramount.
World School Milk Day is an initiative promoted by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations which is celebrated annually across the globe on the last Wednesday of September. Milk is not as common in Australian schools, however so common in childcare and early learning centres here in Australia, who provide an abundance of milk and dairy products to aid in healthy growth and development of our children’s little bodies.
With that in mind, let’s look into what makes milk so legen-dairy!
Why is milk good for children?
Out of the 5 food groups, the dairy group is the powerhouse behind building strong bones and teeth as it contains an excellent source of readily absorbable calcium. The bones and skeleton are the framework of our body and during childhood and adolescents, our bones are growing at a rapid rate in both density and size. During these early stages of the lifecycle, most of our bone mass is deposited to promote the growth of the skeleton which is why young children and teens have a greater requirement for dairy foods and calcium than adults. Over 99% of our total body calcium is found in the teeth and bones and it accounts for almost 40% of our total bone mass.
Shockingly, statistics have shown that our Aussie kids may not be meeting their calcium requirements, with results from the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (2011-12) stating over half of the population aged two and over had inadequate calcium intake. Those aged 12-18 were most likely to have inadequate intakes (up to 90%) compared to children aged 2-3 years who usually met their requirements.
MILK AND DAIRY PRODUCTS RECOMMENDED GUIDELINES
Milk and dairy foods make up one of the core 5 food groups in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) and the guidelines recommend consuming a variety of foods from each food group every day to promote good health and nutrition. The recommended number of serves of milk and dairy products increases as children age due to the demand for the nutrients that dairy foods provide to support their growth and development.
The guidelines recommend:
Recommended number of serves of milk
As per the AGHE guidelines, a serve of dairy may look like:
Nutrition benefits of milk
We are no stranger in the western food culture to hearing about the latest “superfood” products and fads – maybe it gets you thinking about turmeric or quinoa; however, have you ever considered milk to be a “superfood”?
Milk is one of the only fluids on the market to naturally contain our 3 micronutrients -protein, carbohydrates (lactose) and fats which provide us with energy. Not only is it packed full of macros, milk is also abundant in micronutrients - the vitamins and minerals essential for development, wellbeing and prevention of diseases. Calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iodine, riboflavin (B2), vitamin A, D and B12, just to name a few. It is also counted as a fluid source to provide hydration.
The milk fridge at the supermarket in today’s day and age is full of different milk varieties – including regular cow’s milk (low fat, full-cream and skim varieties), lactose-free milk (cow’s milk with added lactase enzyme to assist in breaking down the lactose sugar in those who are intolerant), A2 milk (naturally contains all A2 protein which studies have shown can be easier to digest and gentler on the tummy), goat milk, organic milk, unhomogenised milk (with the cream layer on top) and even flavoured milk including chocolate, iced coffee and various milkshake drinks. UHT/long life milk is also available, as well as an abundance of dairy alternative milks such as almond, rice, oat, coconut, cashew and soy.
NOT ALL MILK VARIETIES ARE EQUALLY NUTRITIOUS
It is important to note that not all milk varieties are equally nutritious. Our dairy alternative milks are an excellent choice for those with a cow’s milk protein allergy, lactose intolerance, or those following vegan/vegetarian diets; however, these options can lack the protein, calcium and micronutrients available in cow’s milk. It is important that if choosing alternative milks, opt for calcium fortified varieties to ensure you are able to meet your recommended daily nutrient requirements.
High protein options such as soy milk are also preferred to promote muscle health and strength. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that children less than 2 years of age consume full cream dairy varieties due to their high energy needs to promote growth. After the age of 2, the recommendation is to opt for reduced-fat varieties as their full-cream counterparts can increase the overall fat and kilojoule (energy) content of the diet, which if not balanced correctly, may promote undesirable weight gain and increase the risk of diseases.
How to encourage children to drink more milk?
Often, young children are fond of milk, however some kids simply don’t like it. Drinking a glass of milk is not the only way a child can meet their dairy and calcium requirements and there are other ways you can help to boost their intake through provision of food and drinks at mealtimes. Some tips to include more milk in your child’s diet include:
Using it as an ingredient in cooking – using milk for soups (e.g. creamy chicken and vegetable), sauces (e.g. bechamel), desserts (e.g. rice pudding, cakes and custards), try some fluffy buttermilk pancakes and make porridge with it.
Mix up your drinks – if your child is not keen on plain milk, try adding flavourings! Milo is a great addition to milk which not only provides a chocolate taste which is often loved, but a bunch of added protein, vitamins and minerals, including calcium. Try milkshakes, fruit smoothies, hot cocoa and even milky coffee drinks for those in their late teens.
Don’t forget, milk is just one piece of the pie!
Your other dairy/alternative products also count towards calcium and dairy serves. You may like to try:
Cheese – adding cheese to sandwiches and wraps, on toast, using cheese spreads on bread, cheese and crackers for snacks, cheese on pizza, in baked dishes (e.g. pasta dishes) and mixed into eggs and omelettes etc.
Yoghurt – suitable for a snack on its own or mixed with fruit/nuts, served at breakfast with cereal/muesli, mixed into smoothies/milkshakes, added as an accompaniment to savoury dishes such as curries or Mexican food (in replacement of sour cream) and as a salad dressing etc.
Custard – served as a snack or served with desserts/fruit.
Be mindful of discretionary dairy choices including ice-cream, cream, sour cream and butter – yes, they are derived from milk but are not included in the 5 core food groups for children due to their processing and addition of added fats and sugars which may conversely impact health.
For more information on milk, calcium, dairy foods and/or alternatives, the Australian Dietary Guidelines are great. Reach out to your OSCAR Care Group Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) for more on nutrition for infancy, childhood and adolescents and more practical tips on achieving your child’s calcium targets.
Lauren Goffredo, Accredited Practising Dietitian for OSCAR Care Group