U of M Expert: Toddlers can go all in with whole milk

Encouraging a balanced diet and plenty of activity can play a major role in reducing a child’s health concerns later in life, but increasing concern over the American obesity epidemic is causing some parents to cut important fats from their toddler’s diet.

Drinking whole milk helps with brain growth and development in toddlers, experts say.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents not to restrict dietary fat or calories in children under two. Healthy fats like those found in whole milk are critical for brain development.

“Whole milk supports neuron formation and other major brain growth and development,” said Deborah Goldman, M.D., assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. “Compromising on good fats in a toddler’s diet can have long term impacts on their development.”

Goldman offers some basic guidelines for parents of toddlers:

  • Begin offering milk at 12 months. Milk is a great part of a healthy, balanced diet and offering it at a young age will encourage children to continue to be life-long milk drinkers. Doctors recommend about two cups (16 oz.) of milk a day at this age.
  • Whole milk, which is 3% milk fat, or 2% are the best option for a toddler. The saturated fats in this percentage of milk encourage overall brain health. At this age, the AAP recommends healthy fats make up half the diet of a toddler.
  • Concerned about weight gain? Instead of cutting healthy fats like milk, reassess dietary elements full of empty calories, like juice or some snack foods.
  • Don’t panic about lactose intolerance. It is rare for children under five to be truly lactose intolerant. “Generally, lactose intolerance in young children is tied to something else, like a recent bacterial infection or Celiac Disease. When the initial concern is addressed, the intolerance fades,” says Goldman.
  • Before making the switch to soy or almond milk, check with a doctor. Milk substitutes don’t stack up in calcium or vitamin D benefits, and may need to be supplemented with other dietary changes.

As children get older, it is a good idea to start shifting to low fat milk, as recommended by the USDA. By the time a child starts kindergarten, only a third of their diet should be coming from healthy fats. Still, when it comes to toddlers, Goldman says the old standard is still the best.

“This isn’t the time to compromise on good fats,” she said. “They not only help set a child up for a lifetime of healthy eating, but are so important to development.”

For a list of University of Minnesota pediatric clinics, click here or call 612-365-6777.

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