Cows’ Milk, Growing Kids, and Childhood Obesity

Jun 16, 2020

The strong emergence and rapid consumer acceptance of plant milk has left the dairy industry scrambling to win back its former loyal audience. As sales of plant milk creep up to 14 percent of the total retail milk market, the dairy industry has doubled down on old tactics to defend its position in the eyes of consumers. One such adage that has served as a reliable crutch for the industry is that dairy helps children “grow big and strong.” A 2017 study by the University of Toronto set out to test this claim, though its methodology and results suggest an untold bias in favor of dairy. The industry employs science to back its marketing claims, but when the science is ultimately skewed, there’s no reason to ever return to purchasing cows’ milk. 

A Faulty Start

Titled, “Association Between Noncow Milk Beverage and Childhood Height,” the study took a clear shot at dairy’s competition. Almost immediately within the abstract, the authors state that noncow milk such as almond and soy milk do not contain as much protein as cows’ milk. On the contrary, both soy and pea milk contain 8 grams of protein per cup—the exact amount of a cup of cows’ milk. Immediately, plant milk is set up to fail in the eyes of the reader. The vast majority of journalists don’t read full studies; the abstract is typically all they skim before publishing a clickbait headline claiming “Non-dairy Milk Stunts Child Growth.” By tossing in this comment about protein and stating it as fact, the authors create a ripple effect that perpetuates these falsities to consumers. 

The Research

Abstract aside, let’s look at the research. The study included 4,146 children between the ages of 24-72 months from nine clinics in Toronto. All participants were selected from the much larger Applied Research Group for Kids cohort study. The children were split into two groups: cows’ milk consumers and noncow milk consumers. Several variables were accounted for to accurately pinpoint the effect of these two beverages including age, sex, BMI, income bracket, and the mother’s ethnicity and height. While the researchers did not deem cows’ milk as a miracle growth beverage, they demonized plant milk by suggesting a causal relationship between noncow milk consumption and decreased height. For every cup of plant milk consumed, researchers found a 0.4 cm reduction in total height, which resulted in a total 0.56-inch reduction for children who regularly consumed three servings of plant milk.

Mixed Results

Looking further into the study, we found several variables in the design that may have skewed the results. Perhaps the most glaring is the fact that no other dietary data was collected, nor was total caloric intake. Researchers had no idea of what foods the participants consumed other than their assigned cups of milk or noncow milk. This opens up the study for an enormous amount of speculation. The study is also extremely limited in its scope—it was performed on very young children who have yet to undergo puberty; therefore, no conclusion can be reached in regards to an individual’s overall height. Even if young children did gain a slight height advantage by drinking cows’ milk, there is no evidence to suggest that the child would maintain this growth into adulthood. While this kind of cross-sectional study may be used to begin making associations, it is not a reliable method to establish cause and effect, as Dr. Cameron O’Connell, ND, points out.  

Cows’ Milk and Childhood Obesity

Finally, we must consider the effects of IGF-1. Children’s bodies rely more heavily on this growth hormone than adults, but there is no need to obtain it from an outside source. The human body—as well as the bovine body—makes its own. In Western nations such as the US and Canada, childhood obesity is a far greater issue than childhood height. The IGF-1 present in cows’ milk (and all other forms of dairy) can overstimulate growth and has been linked to both obesity in children and even cancer for adults. Dr. O’Connell states, “Our bodies are an amazing machine and delicately balanced. If we start to overconsume, we have a problem.” When parents add three servings of two percent cows’ milk to their child’s diet, that adds up to just over 300 extra calories per day and an excess of growth-promoting IGF-1 over time. 

The Takeaway

All parents want their children to “grow big and strong,” but at what cost? This study looked at height in isolation with no indication of the participant’s overall health. Does it really matter if a toddler is half-an-inch taller than other toddlers, especially if that slight height advantage could put him or her at a greater risk for childhood obesity or even cancer later on? Cows’ milk may or may not help children grow, but it very well may be outward instead of upward. The key to healthy growth and development is based on a nutrient-dense, varied diet—it is not achieved by guzzling another species’ breast milk. 

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