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Drinking Skimmed or Low-Fat Milk May Actually Increase Obesity Risk in Toddlers, Study

Update Date: Mar 19, 2013 11:30 AM EDT

Experts have long advised that children drink low fat or skimmed milk to reduce their chances obesity. However, new research reveals that switching to skimmed milk or low-fat milk does not actually prevent toddlers from gaining excess weight, and could, in fact, even increase their chances of becoming overweight or obese.

The latest findings challenge The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association recommendation that all children drink low-fat or skimmed milk after the age of 2 to reduce their saturated fat intake and ward off excess weight gain.

A new study published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that healthy-weight two-year-olds who regularly drank low fat or skimmed milk were 57 percent more likely to be overweight or obese at the age of four compared to those who drank full-fat milk.

The latest study involved data from around 11,000 children.  Researchers asked parents and caregivers whether they fed their children skimmed, 1 percent semi-skimmed, 2 percent milk fat, full fat, or soymilk at age two and again at age four.

Researchers said additional detail was requested when the children were four, including how much and how often they drank not only various types of milk but also fruit juice, squash, fizzy drinks and sports drinks so they could calculate the fat and sugar intake from these sources.  Researchers also weighted and measured the children at age two and again at age four.

The study revealed that at both time points, the prevalence of overweight/obesity was high, affecting around 30 percent of two-year-olds and 32 percent of 4-year-olds.

Researchers found that the prevalence of skimmed or semi-skimmed milk consumption was also higher among the overweight or obese children, with 14 percent of overweight 2-year-olds and 16 percent of overweight 4-year-olds drinking it compared to only 9 percent of normal weight 2-year-olds and 13 percent of normal weight 4-year-olds.

The study revealed that the average weight of children who drank 2 percent or full fat milk was also lower than that of children who drank skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, even after accounting for other confounding factors.

Researchers said they found no evidence of overall differences in weight gain between children who drank skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and those who drank 2 percent full-fat milk, suggesting that low fat milk adds no overall advantage.

However, researchers noted that it is possible that overweight children might have gained more weight if they were not fed low-fat milk. They also noted that the higher prevalence of skimmed or semi skimmed milk consumption among overweight or obese children might also reflect a parental wish to make their children slimmer.

While its logical to assume that lower fat intake equals fewer calories and therefore a trimmer waistline, researchers say the reality may be more complex. Researchers explain that milk fat may increase the feeling of fullness.  Therefore, drinking full fat milk can cut the risk of weight gain by reducing children's appetite or other fatty or calorie dense foods, researchers explain.  

In light of the latest findings, researchers recommend that parents stick with other weight control options to manage their children's weight like cutting down on TV watching and sugary drinks and increasing exercise and fruit and vegetable consumption rather than giving their children low fat milk.  

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