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Could Milk Alternatives Stunt Your Child’s Growth?

A study published recently in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated whether a higher consumption of milk alternatives as opposed to cow milk will result in lower heights during childhood.

A wealth of research evidence exists supporting the idea that height is a crucial measure of a child’s development and nutritional status. Relatedly, consuming cow milk, as opposed to milk alternatives, during childhood has become the norm for most North American children.  This is due to the protein, essential nutrients, and fat cow milk contains, which is important for growth and nutrition.

A recent meta-analysis published in 2012 discovered the trend that children who consumed cow milk tended to be taller than children who did not. Nowadays, more parents are choosing to replace cow milk with non-dairy options such as soy, almond, or rice milk among others. This might be due to the expected health benefits of milk alternatives.

Unlike milk alternatives, the nutritional content in cow milk is standardized and controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that the dietary nutrients in milk alternatives such as protein vary considerably among brands so it is plausible that children who only consume milk alternatives might not be receiving as much dietary protein and fat in comparison to children who drink cow milk.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined whether drinking milk alternatives during childhood would result in lower heights during childhood. The researchers also wanted to determine whether less cow milk consumption would explain the relationship between drinking milk alternatives and lower height in childhood.

This study’s design was observational in nature, and performed by the TARGet Kids! Collaboration (Applied Research Group for Kids). Questionnaires and physical measurements were obtained during check-up visits from nine health-care clinics. There were 5034 pre-school aged children included in this study. The primary outcome was obtained via the questionnaire measuring the daily consumption of cow and milk alternatives in a typical day for each child.

The results ultimately showed a relationship between children drinking milk alternatives and being shorter. However, this relationship could only be partially explained by cow milk consumption, there are likely other variables that play a role in this outcome.

A key finding from this study was that three-year-old children who drank 3 cups of milk alternatives were 1.5 centimeters shorter on average when compared to those in the same age group who drank three cups of cow milk (and no milk alternatives).  Moreover, each daily cup of milk alternatives consumed by the child participants was a 0.4-centimetre decrease in height.

It is important to note that this study does not conclude that the reduction in height was the result of the milk alternatives, rather, that a link exists.  More research will be needed to determine the mechanism for the reduction in height.  The findings from this study will be beneficial in providing parents, doctors, and policymakers with the necessary nutritional information for children when trying to decide what type of milk is best for children’s health and growth.

Written by Melissa Booker

Reference: Morency ME, Birken CS, Lebovic G, Chen Y, L’Abbé M, Lee GJ, Maguire JL, TARGet Kids! Collaboration. Association between milk alternatives beverage consumption and childhood height. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017 Jun 7:ajcn156877.


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