Most of today’s adults grew up drinking whole milk on a daily basis, and chances are that many still regard it as a wholesome mainstay of a balanced diet. Half-pints of whole milk are served in school lunchrooms across the country, but in many school districts it’s being partially or completely replaced by low-fat and nonfat milk options. In 2006, the nation’s largest school district, New York City, completely phased out whole milk in an effort to combat childhood obesity. So what’s the best milk for your child, and for you? There are so many milk options on the market, from whole to nonfat cow’s milk, organic milk, goat milk, sheep milk, and even plant milks from soy, almond, rice, and oats. Let’s look at some common questions and answers about this daily dietary staple.

What is milk exactly?
Milk is an emulsified white liquid secreted by the mammary glands of female mammals to feed their offspring. Mammalian babies rely on their mothers’ milk for all of their nutrition for a time, but humans are the only animals that drink milk from other species long after they themselves have been weaned. Humans have used animal milk as a source of nutrition for thousands of years, and with good reason. This substance is designed to turn calves into cows, lambs into sheep and kids into adult goats, all within a relatively short period of time. Although the nutritional breakdown varies from species to species, all milk contains fat, protein, sugars, vitamins, and minerals necessary for growth and development.

What’s in whole milk? 
An eight-ounce serving of whole milk contains 150 calories, eight grams of fat and about three grams of protein. It also contains essential nutritional building blocks like calcium, phosphorous, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and other vitamins and minerals.

Milk is, in many ways, a nutritional powerhouse – it packs a big punch in a small volume, especially when used as part of an overall balanced diet. Overconsumption of full-fat milk and milk products, as with anything not consumed in moderation, can result in health problems like obesity. Moderate low-fat and nonfat milk intake in adults can help prevent osteoporosis because of milk’s high calcium content. Milk’s calcium can also lead to better oral health – stronger teeth, less tooth decay. Milk and cheese actually reduce acidity in the mouth while you’re eating, and acidity is a major cause of dental decay. Studies have also shown that moderate dairy intake can reduce colon cancer, type II diabetes and high blood pressure risks.

Should I drink organic whole milk?
Organic milk, whether whole, low-fat or nonfat, is an excellent source of the same nutrition as conventionally-produced milk. The difference is that organic milk is produced without the use of synthetic hormones (used to increase milk output) and antibiotics. The cows are also fed grass and grain grown without pesticides. On the whole, organic farmers tend to have more humane dairy operations, and their cows are more likely to be put out to pasture to graze.

The more grass cows eat, the healthier they are – it’s what they’re systems are designed to process. Pastured cows produce milk with higher concentrations of conjugated linoleic acids, which are beneficial fats linked to lower rates of diabetes and heart disease.

How do I introduce whole milk to my baby?
Most pediatricians and dieticians agree that babies are ready to drink cow’s milk when they’re about a year old. Until the age of 12 months, breast milk or formula should be the mainstay of your baby’s diet. Some babies are resistant to the change, as they’ve gotten accustomed to the taste of formula or breast milk. Start by mixing a small amount of milk into her regular bottle, gradually increasing the amount until it is all milk and no formula.

When should I start feeding my child low-fat milk or nonfat milk?
Here’s a good rule of thumb for switching from whole milk to low-fat or nonfat milk: By two years of age, most children are ready to stop drinking whole milk as a daily beverage. The rest of the family should be drinking two-percent, one-percent or skim milk, and by the time he or she is two years old, a child should be ready to join them.

Do people need to drink milk at all?
Many people eat dairy-free diets without suffering ill health effects. Asian cuisines are often completely devoid of milk and milk products, and people in these cultures have some of the lowest rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer in the world. If you cannot drink milk because of an allergy, or if you choose not to because you eat a vegan diet, that’s ok! Dark, leafy greens and legumes can provide some of the same high-quality nutrition that milk does. Overall balance is key if you cannot drink milk.

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