The benefits of vitamin D have long been extolled in the media, and here on Parenting Squad. Recent research shows health benefits of this nutrient include increased immunity, and reduced risk for heart disease and other illnesses. Severe vitamin D deficiency, meanwhile, can lead to rickets and Crohn's disease.

Other than sunshine, the most common vitamin D source is usually considered to be cow’s milk. But as goes the good stuff, so goes the bad. Cow’s milk contains saturated fat and cholesterol, ingredients both linked to heart disease.

Author and physician Andrew Weil, MD., says the butterfat — fat found in whole milk — is a contributor to the overabundance of saturated fat in the American diet and may contribute to the “high rates of cardiovascular disease in our societies,” a noteworthy claim since heart disease is a major health concern for Americans. “The protein in milk is suspect as an allergen and irritant of the immune system in people with allergic and family histories," he writes in his book Eating Well for Optimum Health. Dr. Weil goes on to point out that many cultures with healthier diets don’t drink milk once out of infanthood.

Why Do We Use It?

If milk can be problematic, why do parents across the globe reach for the carton? Milk is quick and easy. Most kids like it. It’s filling and, unless a child is lactose-intolerant, can feel good to the stomach. Three cups a day with a meal is a simple way for parents to help their children get the required vitamin D.

But drinking three cups a day is also a quick way to fill up on ingredients our bodies don't need.

Dr. Weil includes in his book that "some nutritional experts strongly object to the dairy industry's intense promotion of milk as a necessary element of the diet." In a report on The Advertising Educational Foundation, the California Milk Processing Board allowed a 23 million dollar budget for promotion of the beverage. In 2005, The New York Times reported that the Physicans Committee for Responsible Medicine voiced objection to the National Dairy Council's push for milk, claiming it was largely based on the findings of a scientist whose research was funded by the council.

Checking The Labels

It appears that part of the reason milk is considered healthy is simply because it is fortified. But while getting recommended nutrition from whole, unprocessed foods is generally the most effective, parents can reach for other foods that have added vitamins and nutrients, without the fat so detrimental to heart health, as are many foods in the American diet. Though each provides different nutrients, alternative beverages to cow’s milk include goat milk, rice milk, soy milk, and nut milk, all of which contain some natural vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. The following chart is a comparison of nutrients in cow’s milk and rice milk.

 

 

2% Organic Cow's Milk

Vanilla Rice Milk

Fat 5g 2.5g
Cholesterol 20mg 0mg
Sodium 125mg 80mg
Protein 8g 1g
Sugar 12g 12g
Vitamin D 25% of RDA 25% of RDA
Vitamin A 10% 10%
Calcium 30% 30%
Vitamin C 4% 0
Iron 0 2%
Potassium 400mg n/a
Carbohydrates 12g 26g

Most notable is the amount of calcium and vitamin D, which is the same for both beverages. Also notable, cow’s milk contains cholesterol and more sodium than rice milk. Though rice milk contains more carbohydrates (not necessarily a good thing), if you're looking to lower saturated fats and increase your intake of calcium and Vitamin D, there are alternatives to cow's milk. Natural sources for vitamin D include cheese, eggs, yogurt, salmon, tuna, and sunshine. Fortified foods include orange juice and breakfast cereal. For more information on vitamin D, as well as a thorough list of food choices, visit the National Institutes of Health Vitamin D Fact Sheet.

Resources

Mayo Clinic

WebMD

National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements

Eating Well For Optimum Health by Dr. Weil, M.D.