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Which Type of Milk Is Best?

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Shari Nethersole, M.D.

Q: Is there a difference in milk: skim, 2%, and whole? Our daughters are not overweight and one is 17 and one is 11. Is there some reason we should not all be drinking skim? Should the 17-year-old be drinking 2% and the 11-year-old be drinking whole to get everything they need to grow strong and healthy, or is this rating just a bunch of hype to get us to buy two or three types of milk?

A: The difference in those labels on milk are due to different amounts of fat in the milk. Whole milk is milk that has nothing removed. All milk has protein and carbohydrate, and in whole milk about 4 % of its total content is composed of fat. 2% milk has two percent fat; that means it has about half the fat of whole milk. Similarly, 1% milk has half as much fat as the 2%, and skim milk has all of the fat removed (The term skim comes from the way that the fat is removed. When milk is not homogenized the cream, which is the fatty part, rises to the top. A utensil is then used to "skim" the cream off the top of the milk).

The milk with the fewest calories and the least fat is the skim milk. But is that then the best milk? For children under two it is absolutely not the right choice. Children under two still need all the fat and calories that come from whole milk, and this is what they should drink (the developing brain in young children needs the fat and cholesterol that is in whole milk).

For older children and adults however, whole milk can be a source of unwanted calories and fat, particularly in this era when so many of us are overweight. High cholesterol is also an issue for many of us, increasing the risk for heart disease. To make matters more complicated though, there is certainly recent evidence to suggest that a diet with absolutely no fat or cholesterol is also not the best!

So what is the right answer? Probably for most of us, one percent milk makes sense if we are drinking a glass of milk or pouring it onto our cereal. Some people find it too watery to use in their coffee or tea, and then 2% milk is fine to use. I can't think of any good reason for adults to drink whole milk (except that it's what many of us are used to and its hard to change!). Thus for your family with older girls, one percent milk should be fine for everyone.

It is important to note that all these different types of milk have pretty much the same amount of vitamins A and D, as well as calcium. All of them will provide what older children need for continued growth and strengthening of their bones.

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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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