Recently, new beverage guidelines for children birth to 5 years of age were released. The guidelines were created by an expert panel representing four key national health and nutrition organizations- the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association, and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program, Healthy Eating Research, convened the group of experts and provided leadership to the panel throughout the creation of the guidelines.
As a public health dietitian, I was eager to see what was new with this set of beverage guidelines. After taking a deep dive into them, it became clear that there was a strong focus on the importance of water and cow’s milk for this age group, with plenty of research to back the recommendations. Although we have known the nutritional benefits of milk for years, the panel explained why healthcare providers, parents and caregivers should know exactly how much milk this age group should be consuming.
For children ages birth to 12 months, the guidelines state no cow’s milk should be consumed, which follows previous recommendations. Children ages 12-24 months should consume 2-3 cups per day of whole milk; 2% or 1% milk may be considered in consultation with a pediatrician. For children ages 2-3 years, the guidelines recommend up to 2 cups per day of plain, pasteurized skim or 1% milk and for children ages 4-5, the guidelines recommend up to 2.5 cups per day of plain, pasteurized skim or 1% milk. The panel attributed these recommendations to the important nutrients that milk provides, including calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A & D, B vitamins, and protein.
The panel also addressed other beverages including non-dairy alternatives. The short version of their recommendation is that these types of beverages are not recommended because they are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk and many contain added sugars. Although some are fortified with nutrients that are found naturally in cow’s milk, the panel expressed concern regarding their bioavailability, or how well the body absorbs and uses the nutrients. It was noted that if a child has a medical reason for not consuming milk, such as a milk allergy, a fortified soy beverage could be consumed as its nutrient profile is most similar to cow’s milk.
These new guidelines reinforce the importance of milk in children’s diets. They provide simple, fact-based recommendations for healthcare providers, parents, and caregivers. Because of the nutrient profile of milk and these guidelines based on decades of research, I will continue to encourage children to drink milk at home, at school, and everywhere in between.
Stephanie Hodges is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in public health and nutrition. She is the founder and owner of The Nourished Principles where she consults with schools, non-profit organizations, and food companies on a variety of public health nutrition projects. Stephanie works with clients to implement strong nutrition programs and policies, engage and inform consumers on nutrition and health topics, and strengthen nutrition and wellness within school districts.