Children Who Drink Milk Alternatives Are Shorter Than Consumers of Cow’s Milk

As consumption of cow milk declines, new research shows that a three-year-old who drank three cups per day could be nearly two centimeters taller than a child who consumed other types of milk.

As milk consumption declined, new milk substitutes have taken the stage. Soy milk, almond milk, cashew milk, and hemp milk are just a few of the dozen or more types of milk alternatives.

But new research shows that cow’s milk may still be a crucial source of nutrients for healthy kids. The paper, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found a correlation between children who did not drink cow's milk and children that were lower in height. 

“Children who are consuming non-cow’s milk tend to be shorter by 0.4 centimeters per cup, per day,” said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and an author of the study. 

“The difference is not nothing,” Maguire added, though he said it is still unclear if the height difference persist into adulthood.

According to the study, the height difference for a 3-year-old who consumed 3 cups of non-cow milk per day relative to 3 cups cow's milk per day was 1.5 cm.

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It can sometimes seem to parents that there is an infinite amount of reasons why or why not to feed certain foods to their children. Milk may help height, but it can also pack on the pounds. Eggs have recently been shown to be good for growth in children, but are also high in cholesterol.

The reason he wanted to complete the study, Maguire said, was to help parents understand the effects that different foods have on their children.

“Parents make decisions every day that affect the lives of their children,” said Maguire, a father himself. “But a lot of times we don’t have a whole lot of data to inform our decisions”

Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician and book author who was not affiliated with the study, agrees that milk could be a factor in children’s growth. “Kids who drink milk as toddlers and young children, they grow up the be healthier overall,” she said.

But Andy Bellatti, a professional nutritionist and strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, said that children can be perfectly healthy without cow’s milk as long as they eat a balanced diet. He noted that height, the only metric Maguire studied, is in many cases greatly influenced by genetics.

“It is perfectly possible to raise a healthy child without giving any cow’s milk,” Altmann agreed, “but it is more challenging.”

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Maguire said that parents of children who are unable to consume cow’s milk for medical reasons, such as lactose intolerance or a milk allergy, don’t need to be overly concerned. But parents buying milk-substitutes should be careful of which plant-based milk product they buy, since not all of them have the same nutrition. What is needed, Maguire said, is “alternative milk products that are equivalent to cow’s milk.”

Maguire noted that due to the observational nature of the study, the findings were not definite. A good study, Maguire said, would have been a randomized control trial. But, he added, “That’s going to be a really tricky trial to do.”

The bottom line, all the experts agree, is that whether children drink plant-based milk or cow’s milk, it is essential for a growing child to get the correct amount of proteins and calories in order to thrive.

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