Courtney asks, “What’s your stance (or the research base) for dairy-free diets for babies-toddlers-kids?”
A dairy-free diet can be ok for a child, but a diet that includes dairy is likely better from a nutritional standpoint.
Note that I won’t be going into the ethical aspects of dairy consumption in this article.
Dairy can refer to cow, sheep, goat and horse/mare (!) products; such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Cow’s milk and its products are the most commonly produced and consumed, and are the focus of the information on this page.
Why would someone avoid dairy foods and drinks? For ethical reasons (animal and/or environmental), or due to an allergy to cow’s milk protein or an intolerance to lactose (dairy sugar). For example, a vegetarian may or may not consume dairy.
Dairy foods and drinks are good sources of nutrients like protein; calcium; iodine; vitamins A, D, riboflavin and B12; and zinc. They often contain higher (and often more bioavailable, i.e. your body can better access them) levels of nutrients – like calcium – when compared to non-dairy sources, such as nuts or leafy greens.
Plant-based milks (e.g. soy milk) usually have lower levels of protein and micronutrients than cow’s milk. However, many dairy alternatives like soy milk and tofu are fortified with nutrients, i.e. nutrients are added to them during production.
Soya bean products, such as tofu and soy milk, contain phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens can mimic human hormones in the body. The benefit:harm relationship of phytoestrogens on human health, including on infant and child health, is not completely understood.
Dairy milks and their alternatives
Breastmilk and formula milk ONLY between 0-6 months:
From 0-6 months, babies should only be given breastmilk or formula milk. The formula milk can be made from cow’s milk or can be dairy-free, e.g. soy-based. From around 6 months, babies start to eat solid foods, which can include dairy foods (e.g. full-fat yoghurt).
Cow’s milk should not be given as a main drink until 12 months or older (between 0-12 months, breastmilk or formula milk should be the main drink that is given to an infant). Full-fat milk should be given from 12 months to 2 years (due to the high growth/energy requirements of 1-year-olds), and after 2 years, reduced fat milk is fine. But no more than about 500mL per day from 12 months.
An good non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk is soy milk. However, “Infants fed soy formula have the highest exposure to any nonpharmacological source of estrogen-like compounds, yet we know virtually nothing about how the use of these phytoestrogen-rich formulas might impact their future reproductive health” (Patisaul and Jefferson, 2010). Also, soy (and other plant-based) milk can be sweetened with sugars like glucose, which is more harmful to teeth than the dairy sugar, lactose.
Other plant-based milks:
Rice milk is not recommended in the UK for children under 5 years of age, as it may contain more naturally-occurring arsenic toxin; which can be more harmful to younger children when compared to older children due to their lower body weight and higher consumption of milk. However, the Australian Government say that: “Rice and oat milk can be used after 12 months, as long as a full-fat, fortified variety (at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml) is used and alternative forms of protein and vitamin B12 are included in the diet. These products are suitable when used under health professional supervision”.
NSW Government quote: “Oat, almond, quinoa and coconut milks are not suitable substitutes for cow’s milk, as they do not provide the necessary nutrients for young children”.
Australian Government quote: “Soy (except fortified soy products and soy formula where specifically indicated), and other nutritionally incomplete alternate milks or milk substitutes (e.g. goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, coconut milk, almond milk) are inappropriate alternatives to breastmilk, formula or pasteurised whole cow’s milk in the first two years of life“.
Material provided on The Real Bok Choy’s website and blog is intended to be of a general nature only. It should not be relied upon for personalised health information, i.e. every person and situation is different; and any changes to a person’s diet should be made after individualised advice is obtained from an appropriately qualified health professional. For example, tailored dietary/nutrition guidance should be sought from an Accredited Practising Dietitian or a Registered Nutritionist.