Plant-based milks may be seen as a health food, but they’re not necessarily healthy for young children.
Plant-based milks are among the latest health food crazes, but according to a new set of nutritional guidelines released by experts from the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists, they may not be healthy for everyone.
These new guidelines may hold some surprises for parents, as many of their recommendations contravene popular beliefs about what beverages are healthy for kids to drink. While plant-based milks are popular among adults as a low-calorie, lactose-free alternative to dairy milk, these rice, coconut, oat, and nut “milks” often lack key nutrients that are essential for early physical development. Additionally, some of them contain ingredients that simply don’t have a place in a young child’s diet.
The Problem with Plant-Based Milks
As interest in plant-based milks has skyrocketed over the last decade, so has the misconception that these milk alternatives offer the same nutritional profile as dairy milk. Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case. Cow’s milk contains substantial amounts of nutrients that are vital to children’s development, including vitamin D, calcium, protein, and more.
While many plant-based milks come fortified with these nutrients, it’s unclear whether our bodies are able to absorb and use them as well as they are able to absorb the naturally occurring nutrients in cow’s milk. Additionally, many of these milks are artificially flavored or sweetened, which is why the guidelines suggest that young children stick with dairy.
That said, the guidelines make exceptions for children who have dairy allergies or whose families abstain from drinking cow’s milk for religious or ethical reasons. In these cases, it’s recommended that parents consult with their child’s pediatrician to create a nutrition plan that meets all their child’s needs.
Understanding the New Guidelines
Beyond plant-based milks, parents are advised to steer their children clear of sugary drinks, including low- or zero-calorie beverages. That’s because even “diet” beverages tend to be exceptionally sweet, and the foods and drinks children consume at a young age tend to inform their lifelong preferences.
Similarly, flavored milk is now a no-go. In the past, many doctors and nutritionists operated under the belief that chocolate milk was better than no milk at all, but today’s experts aren’t so sure, once again citing the risk of sweets-oriented taste development.
Fruit juice is also off the table, though not entirely. While juice boxes may once have been considered a cornerstone of any young child’s diet, today’s experts recommend that children over the age of one drink just four ounces of 100 percent fruit juice per day. At age four, they can up their intake to six ounces per day. Children under twelve months shouldn’t drink juice at all.
If you have questions about these guidelines, or if you’d prefer not to have dairy milk in your child’s diet, reach out to Kids’ Health. Our team of pediatric specialists is dedicated to serving your child holistically, and we’ll help you craft a nutrition plan that caters to all your child’s unique needs.