The topic of kids and milk is sacrosanct, so it is with a great deal of trepidation that I am going to make a few claims:

  1. Kids don’t need as much calcium as you think.
  2. You can meet your kids’ calcium needs without resorting to milk.
  3. Non-milk sources of calcium might actually be healthier for your kids both now and in the long run.

I’m not an advocate of the milk-at-any-cost philosophy.  I feel like it often leads to parental panic—who needs more things to worry about? —when kids don’t drink as much milk as we think they need.  And the steps we take (like pestering/pressuring and sweetening/flavoring) are often counterproductive.  Read The (Chocolate) Millk Mistake and Dealin’ with the Devil.

I say: if your kids don’t drink as much milk as you would like them to…don’t have a cow!

(1) Kids don’t need as much calcium as you think.

Daily calcium needs according to the National Institute of Health:

  • 1-3 year olds  = 500 mg
  • 4-8 year olds  = 800 mg
  • 9-18 year olds  = 1,300 mg
  • 19-50 year olds = 1,000 mg

As a point of reference, just one cup (8 ounces) of milk = 300 mg of calcium or…

  • 60% of 1-3 year olds’ daily needs
  • 38% of 4-8 year olds’ daily needs

Milk is pushed so hard by pediatricians because it’s an easy and efficient source of calcium.

(2) You can meet your kids’ calcium needs without resorting to milk.

Of course, you can give your kids any kind of dairy food and they’ll get calcium:

  • 8 ounces of low fat plain yogurt = 415 mg  (Note: The equivalent in fruit yogurt has less calcium because the container contains less yogurt due to the fruit, or other yogurt-displacing, additives.)
  • 1.5 ounces of Cheddar cheese = 306 mg
  • ½ cup of vanilla ice cream has 85 mg

But dairy food is just another form of serving up milk.  All plant foods — fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts — also have calcium.

True, plant foods have less calcium per serving, but every bite adds up.  If your children consume the following diet they will take in 624 mg of calcium:

  • Breakfast = 1 cup of dry Cheerios = 100 mg
  • Lunch = 2 slices of white bread = 62 mg
  • Snack = 1 oz of dry roasted almonds = 76 mg
  • Dinner = ½ cup of soft tofu = 138 mg, ½ cup of frozen spinach = 146 mg, ½ cup of canned white beans = 102 mg

I know this seems like you have to give your kids a lot of food to fulfill their calcium needs but think of it this way: even if you give your kids milk, you still have to feed them other foods too.  Why not worry less about the milk and focus on providing a variety of foods instead?  It will promote better lifelong habits and the calcium will take care of itself.

(One the other hand, you could just give your child one cup of Total Raisin Bran.  It has 1000 mg of calcium, without the milk.)

Read the USDA report Milk Group and Alternatives.

(3) Non-milk sources of calcium might actually be healthier for your kids in the long run.

Noted nutrition Marion Nestle makes the following points in her excellent book What to Eat:

  • Cow’s milk is high in calcium, but it is also high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.   Just as importantly, some components of dairy (such as magnesium, potassium, vitamin D) promote calcium retention, but other components (such as protein, phosphorous and sodium) promote its excretion.
  • Plant foods have smaller doses of calcium but they also have fewer substances that promote calcium loss.
  • Healthy bones need a host of nutrients, and calcium balance depends on getting enough of every one of the nutrients involved in building bones.
  • In parts of the world where cow’s milk is not a staple of the diet, people often have less osteoporosis and fewer bone fractures than we do; they maintain calcium balance perfectly well on less than half the calcium intake recommended for Americans.
  • In America, dairy products are enhanced, sometimes beyond the point of recognition (and health).  Most yogurts targeted to kids are better thought of as desserts.  For instance, 55% of the 80 calories in Go-Gurt, comes from sugar and some of Stonyfield’s fruit yogurts have no fruit in them at all.

Today’s American obsession with milk is a byproduct of the dairy industry’s highly successful marketing and lobbying campaign.

According to the milk industry, milk consumption began to decline in the 1960s.  Then they got to work! And…

[W]e have seen enormous change with the industry’s successful image program (the National Milk Mustache “got milk?”Campaign), as well as significant progress in re-tooling our industry to be a competitive player in the world of beverages with expanded distribution, new packaging, flavors and products.

Read the Milk Processor Education Report.

Don’t worry so much about milk. Research shows that plant foods are probably the most beneficial foods you can eat, but consuming too much dairy, even in childhood, is worse than not eating enough.


~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Additional Sources:

Bittman, M., 2009. Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Nestle, M., 2006. What to Eat. New York: North Point Press.

Update on August 12, 2010

Last night for dinner I prepared stuffed shells, not a dish I normally associate with calcium.  But having just written a post about calcium I now see calcium everywhere! As we sat there eating I realized that I had stuffed the shells with spinach, broccoli, tofu, mozzarella and parmesan – all sources of calcium.  What’s more, I had baked the shells with tomato sauce, another small a source of calcium.  A glass of milk the shells were not.  But a decent source of calcium they were!