The Downfalls of a Dairy-Free Diet

Parents across the country are opting to ditch the dairy in their children's diets. But what kind of impact does that have on overall health?

Milk has been a staple in the average American diet for ages, but lately, there has been a shift to dairy-free alternatives. While there are other ways to get some of the same nutrients that milk provides, Bethany Thayer, director at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Henry Ford Health System, says that going dairy-free can put the health of you and your child at risk.

“Any time you eliminate an entire food group from your diet, you risk creating nutrient deficiencies,” Thayer says. “In fact, there are four nutrients so under consumed in the American diet they have been declared a public health concern. Three of these -calcium, vitamin D and potassium- are found in cow’s milk. Eliminating dairy simply compounds the risk.”

If a child does not get enough of the calcium and vitamin D needed during this time of rapid bone growth, according to Thayer, they can incur injuries, such as fractures, while playing sports. As adults, they can develop osteoporosis, where some of the calcium is leached out of bones, making them weaker. “Before 18 is when you’re building up bone strength in preparation for the rest of your life. It’s critical that bones get proper nutrients, which is why milk is so important,” says Thayer.

There are other ways to get calcium and vitamin D, but Thayer says “It’s not as easy.” Foods that contain these nutrients aren’t as common in the average American diet, especially among children. “You can get calcium through kale, spinach and sardines, but you have to eat a lot of them.” Thayer adds that you need 10-12 cups of spinach to get the same amount of calcium that’s in a glass of milk, or four cups of kale. Vitamin D is naturally found in salmon, mushrooms and cod liver oil. “It’s pretty unlikely that someone is consuming these on a daily basis, let alone enough of them to get the same amount of vitamin D that they would get from a glass of milk. And you certainly don’t see many kids willing to eat that stuff.” Parents may believe that non-dairy alternatives are equal to milk’s nutrient package. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The nutrition in these beverages are not standard between brands, and many, such as almond and coconut milk, contain one gram of protein or less per cup. Although they may be fortified with added calcium, often times it settles to the bottom of the carton.

Many parents are ditching dairy because of health and safety concerns, such as antibiotics and hormones in the milk. Thayer says that’s an unfounded concern. “Pasteurized cow’s milk is absolutely safe. Selling milk containing antibiotics is actually illegal, and there are very stringent mandatory tests done on milk at every stage from farm to the processing plant.” When it comes to hormones, she notes that all living things, from plants to animals, including humans, produce hormones which are naturally occurring. “Hormones have never been added to milk, and natural hormones that are in milk are safe for consumption and become inactive once you digest them.” Although supplemental growth hormones are FDA-approved and have been used to increase milk production, most milk companies have been responsive to consumer demand and offer milk from cows not treated with rBST. And, “Whether it is noted on the label or not, all Michigan milk is sourced from cows not treated with rBST,” Thayer says.

Whether it’s 2 percent, fat-free or whole, all milk has almost exactly the same nutrient profile, containing eight grams of protein plus eight more essential nutrients per serving. If you’re trying to decide what milk to purchase, Thayer says to get whatever variety your family prefers.

If you or your child are lactose intolerant, you still don’t need to give up dairy. “There is lactose-free milk that has the same nutritional value as regular milk, just without the lactose,” Thayer says. You can even build up your tolerance by consuming lactose. “Start with foods lower in lactose, like hard cheeses or yogurt. Often times, your body will begin to increase lactase production, the enzyme that breaks down lactose.”

Dairy is the easiest way to get the nutrients needed for you and your child to thrive. Have your children sample an array of dairy products to see which they like best and then incorporate into their daily diet. “Some kids prefer yogurt. I’m successful with adding milk to their cereal. You can opt to use milk when you’re cooking in addition to drinking it, too.” However you decide to have your dairy, it’ll probably be easier than getting your kids to eat sardines and kale.

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