Cow’s Milk, Plant Milks and Growth in Children

Cow’s Milk, Plant Milks and Growth in Children

By |2017-06-08T08:18:16+00:00June 8th, 2017|26 Comments

New research from Canada found that kids who don’t drink cow’s milk are shorter than those who do. It’s a finding that makes for some sensational headlines but the study itself is not all that exciting.

This was a cross-sectional study of 5,034 children between the ages of two and six years (average age was about three years). Of the study population, 246 kids, or about 5% of the subjects, drank only non-cow’s milk, which included plant milks and goat’s milk. For each daily cup of non-cow’s milk consumed, children were 0.16 inch shorter. By age three, those who drank three cups of non-cow’s milk per day were about 0.6 inches shorter than children who drank an equivalent amount of cow’s milk, but this finding wasn’t statistically significant.

Since cross-sectional studies look at relationships only at a single point in time, they are generally weak types of evidence. And this particular study provided no additional information about the diets of these children. It also didn’t differentiate among types of non-cow’s milk. These are two crucial factors, especially because the researchers suggested that the differences in height may have been due to differences in protein intake.

Both overall diet and type of plant milk consumed would have a very big effect on how much protein these children were getting.  A toddler drinking three cups per day of almond milk will likely have a much lower protein intake than one consuming three cups of soymilk. This is one reason why vegan nutrition experts recommend soymilk as the best option when kids are being weaned from breast milk or infant formula. This study would have provided more relevant information if it had compared children drinking cow’s milk to those drinking soymilk.

Overall, these findings suggest that type of milk consumed may impact childhood growth, but it’s not possible to determine this without looking at milk consumption within the context of the whole diet. More importantly, there is no evidence that cow’s milk has advantages over other protein-rich milks like soymilk or protein-fortified plant milks for kids or anyone else.

Source: Morency M, Birken CS Gerald Lebovic G et al. Association between noncow milk beverage consumption and childhood height. Am J Clin Nutr 2017; Epub ahead of print.



  1. Dave Rolsky June 8, 2017 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Another question that occurs to me is whether this growth is actually good, bad, or neutral. Why should we care about height at all? Is it a proxy for some other quality that actually matters? Are taller toddlers healthier, smarter, better socially adjusted?

    I mean, I’m 6’7″ but I don’t think this translates to much other than that I can see really well at concerts in clubs and I have bad knees and back problems.

    • Ginny Messina June 8, 2017 at 9:23 am - Reply

      Right, that’s a whole other topic. Not to mention that there might be some advantages for girls who drink soymilk in terms of lower lifetime risk of breast cancer. Which seems like a good trade off for a somewhat smaller height. But the truth is that many people value height and want their kids to be tall. So these headlines might scare them away from plant milks.

    • Stacy June 9, 2017 at 2:06 pm - Reply

      I was thinking the same thing. We’re assuming this extra growth is healthy. Maybe it stems from the extra hormones in the milk – is that healthy?

    • Mychael McNeeley June 9, 2017 at 9:49 pm - Reply

      I’m so glad you brought that up. That was one of the first things I thought of. Why are we so focused on people being bigger and taller? Taller doesn’t mean healthier! We come in all different sizes.

    • Ross September 14, 2017 at 5:21 pm - Reply

      The Taller you are, the more you bump your head!

  2. Daisy June 8, 2017 at 9:13 am - Reply

    There is research showing cow’s milk is a superior source of calcium over soy milk.

    And we know that most plant proteins are not used as efficiently as animal proteins.

    IMO, it’s fine for an adult to decide to damage their body, but kids don’t have that choice.

    • Elizabeth Braun June 8, 2017 at 9:24 am - Reply

      Just wondering what evidence you can point to that life vegans or even children who can’t tolerate cow’s milk (including populations who don’t traditionally feed dairy to their kids) are in any way disadvantaged by not ingesting cow’s milk?

    • Ginny Messina June 8, 2017 at 9:25 am - Reply

      Here’s something a little more recent:

      Not that it matters. It would be an issue only if people got all of their calcium from milks.

      • Daisy June 8, 2017 at 11:39 am - Reply

        You’re offering a study about menopausal women to defend your rejection of a study using info on 3 year old children?

        • Ginny Messina June 8, 2017 at 12:38 pm - Reply

          No, I’m offering it as further information about absorption of calcium. I’m responding to your comment about calcium, which actually has nothing to do with this particular blog post.

        • Diana June 8, 2017 at 8:25 pm - Reply

          Your study was about 22-51 year old men. It actually has less to do with the individuals and more about Ca absorption.

    • Jennifer June 10, 2017 at 6:48 am - Reply

      Cow milk also makes people sick and can lead to digestive problems, intolerance and illness. Blanket statements do nobody any good…. and just for reference… I never drank milk during pregnancy and now my son is eight years old and has never drank milk however he has always been in the 90th percentile for height- that means he’s the tallest kid in his class… and always has been.

  3. Elizabeth Braun June 8, 2017 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Height doesn’t equal health, but the media loves to get hold of things and sensationalize them.

    • Daisy June 8, 2017 at 11:43 am - Reply

      Height might not equal health, but most every week I see potential vegan teens asking if being vegan will stop them from growing tall. This study might give them pause about making the switch to vegan.

      Being tall is important to teenagers….especially boys.

      • Diana June 8, 2017 at 8:26 pm - Reply

        Daisy, what do you say to cultures who do not traditionally consume much cow’s milk? Also, anecdotes =/= actual evidence. Concern is valid about anything from anyone. This is *one* study that shows a very weak association; not a very well done one in fact.

        As important as it is, genetics has far more to do with it.

  4. Rose June 9, 2017 at 9:19 am - Reply

    If the finding wasn’t statistically significant, we don’t even have evidence that this difference exists in the population. While this might be worth reporting in a journal, it not newsworthy, unless they want to say “researchers failed to find evidence of a height difference”.

  5. Katie June 9, 2017 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    I’d love to see the rate or obesity and age of menarche for adolescent females who drink cow’s milk compared to those that drink plant based milk.

  6. Tyler June 9, 2017 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    I think what studies like this really show is that there is a lot we don’t know about vegan diets and children.

    Me and my wife were both eating a plant-based diet prior to her getting pregnant and we just weren’t comfortable with the diet anymore after reviewing the evidence on vegan diets in pregnancy and children….or I really should say the lack of evidence.

    In terms of cultures that traditionally don’t consume milk….those cultures have much different dietary traditions that aren’t easily mimicked in western countries. But one cannot role out divergent genetics, after all, persistent dairy consumption selected for lactose tolerance.

  7. Susan Lavelle, MS, APRN, FNP-BC June 10, 2017 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    I think this ONE study really demonstrates very little – an n of 246 is really small and it includes another mammal’s milk (goat)… let’s see if it can be replicated and if there is a difference between the different kinds of plant milks and cow’s milk. I too wondered about the role of growth and reproductive hormones, as we know these have a negative impact on young girls’ and womens’ health and likely men’s as well (with early onset of menses and the association of reproduction cancers in both genders). We certainly know a lot about our current American diet on our youth – epidemic rates of obesity, hyperlipidemia, and type 2 diabetes and also how populations with higher intakes of dairy products have higher rates of osteoporosis and fractures… and so far, the data suggests a well balanced WF plant-based diet for kids is heathy.

  8. Sandy B June 10, 2017 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Elephants, rhinos and hippos seem to grow large and have enormous tusks / teeth without taking cows milk.

    We should all just stick to our own mothers’ milk and then wean on to a plant based diet. So long as the diet is nutritionally adequate we should meet our genetic height potential….

    Seriously this study is so flawed . Have they even considered the long term consequences of cows milk consumption? Obesity, cancer, bowel disease, heart disease, osteoporosis? when I drank my allocated 2-3 cups of milk a day I was fat ( and no it did not help me grow taller either).

  9. Elizabeth bader June 10, 2017 at 7:04 pm - Reply

    Frankly, I don’t understand why people are so obsessed with milk. Cow, soy, whatever. Look at ANY other species, and you will see that with a few very unusual exceptions, almost no young animals continue to,drink milk once they are weaned. Why is it assumed children need it?

  10. Tash June 11, 2017 at 4:32 am - Reply

    There are Insulin Like growth Hormones in cows milk possibly causing overgrowth in children, further leading to bone deterioration and all kinds of health issues! Think about it, it’s made for a baby calf to grow! You don’t need cows milk for calcium, just eat greens like broccoli and nuts like almonds..

  11. Ashwani Garg June 21, 2017 at 6:11 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for writing this Ginny. I have had several patients ask me already about this study; they were also skeptical. Some evidence to suggest that while growth velocity may be affected, the ultimate adult height is not significantly impacted. My patient told me correctly that she knows there are many hormones in cow’s milk which cause abnormally fast growth. They even lumped in goat’s milk as a “noncow” milk. As far as studies, it’s garbage in, garbage out.

  12. sam July 27, 2017 at 12:58 am - Reply

    there is a scientifically proven link between height and reduced life expectancy. if cows milk makes you taller then its also making you live less.

  13. Kelly February 26, 2018 at 2:18 am - Reply

    I’m a little late to the party but I have to reply. Suggesting that all kids who drink cows’ milk will be taller than their counterpart who doesn’t drink it is not a fact. First of all, what is in cows’ milk? Calcium and Protein are what most people say. We and children can get plenty of that from a balanced diet. Cow’s milk after weaning a baby is more like a supplement to ensure the kid gets enough nutrients. However here is an example that shows that it doesn’t matter what you drink, that’s not always the case. I am a new vegan, however, I drank a lot of cow’s milk as a toddler and child, and I grew to be only 4’11”. My grandmother is the same height as me also. That shows that I did not grow tall by drinking cows milk. So people, like this article, that claim cows milk can help kids grow, don’t have all the information. There’s a lot of things that go into it, including genetics, overall diet from food, and I’m sure a few other things I can’t think of off the bat. So I just get angry when people claim cows milk is the best for our bodies,

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