Doctors often recommend that preschoolers drink skim milk to reduce their overall calorie intake. But it turns out lower fat milk may not help reduce the risk of obesity.
A recent study analyzed preschoolers' weights and the type of milk they drank. The heavier kids were actually more likely to be drinking skim or 1 percent milk.
In fact, the children drinking 2 percent or whole milk were less likely to be overweight or obese.
The authors concluded that the recommendation for young children to drink skim milk may not be an effective way to combat obesity. Better recommendations might focus on reducing screen time, increasing vegetables and skipping sugary drinks.
The study, led by Rebecca J. Scharf, of the Division of Developmental Pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, aimed to see whether children's weight was affected by the type of milk they drank.
The researchers gathered information on the types of milk 10,700 US children drank and their body mass index (BMI) at ages 2 and 4.
BMI is a ratio of a person's height and weight. It is used to identify whether someone is at a healthy weight, or is over- or underweight.
At 2 years old, 87 percent of the children were drinking whole milk or 2 percent milk. That number dropped slightly to 79 percent of the children at 4 years old. At both ages, just over 30 percent of the children were overweight or obese.
The researchers found that the children drinking 1 percent or skim milk had higher BMI scores on the whole than the scores of the children drinking whole or 2 percent milk.
About 14 percent of the overweight or obese 2-year-olds drank 1 percent or skim milk, compared to only 9 percent of the normal weight 2-year-olds. Meanwhile, 16 percent of the overweight or obese 4-year-olds drank 1 percent or skim milk while only 13 percent of the normal weight 4-year-olds did.
This finding was true across all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups included in the study.
When the researchers adjusted their findings to account for different variables among the children, they found that the fattier the milk was that children drank, the lower their BMI tended to be.
This trend also revealed that children drinking the fattier milk were less likely to be overweight.
For example, 2-year-olds drinking 1 percent or skim milk were 64 percent more likely to be overweight and 57 percent more likely to be obese than 2-year-olds drinking whole or 2 percent milk.
Four-year-olds drinking 1 percent or skim milk were 63 percent more likely to be overweight and 64 percent more likely to be obese than 4-year-olds drinking whole or 2 percent milk.
Interestingly, the 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds drinking 1 percent or skim milk were also more likely to have become overweight or obese between ages 2 and 4.
The researchers concluded that drinking 1 percent or skim milk is more common among overweight and obese preschoolers, yet the lower fat milk does not appear to slow down weight gain in the children.
They suggested that this trend might reflect parents' decision to give their overweight children a lower fat milk. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending in 2005 that children aged 2 and older should drink low fat milk.
The rationale behind the AAP recommendation was that children would consume fewer daily calories if they drank low fat milk.
However, another possibility is that drinking higher fat milk helps children feel more full, which may prevent them from eating other snacks with even more calories, the authors noted.
Dr. Deborah Gordon, MD, a dailyRx expert who specializes in nutrition, said she found the authors' conclusion puzzling because they do not appear to consider that full fat milk may be the healthier choice for children.
"Either they are writing it tongue in cheek – demonstrating how flimsily conventional nutritional advice relies on findings different than expected – or, they are quite seriously reaching out to the entrenched anti-fat coalitions, pointing out very delicately that perhaps lower fat content in milk is not in fact validated as a weight loss tool," Dr. Gordon said.
"The fat content of milk is not just a matter of taste but indeed a matter of health," Dr. Gordon added. "The fat soluble vitamins present and actually capable of being absorbed from full fat milk is the benefit we see first when we compare the different dairy products. If you're drinking milk, opt for the version the cow creates, not the dairy industry."
The study authors wrote that other advice may be better for parents attempting to reduce their children's risk of obesity. These other recommendations might include less television viewing, more physical activity, eating more vegetables and drinking less juice and sugar-sweetened beverages.
The study was published March 18 in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.