Some parents limit the amount of sweetened chocolate or strawberry milk they give their children because it doesn't seem all that healthy—especially compared to the plain stuff. But it turns out that kids who consumed regular or flavored milk had comparable or lower body-mass-index measures compared to nonmilk drinkers, according to a new study in the current issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. "The take-home message is that limiting children and teens' access to flavored milk due to its slightly higher sugar and calorie content may only lead to the undesirable effect of reducing intakes of important nutrients while having no impact on obesity," says study coauthor Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont.
"Milk seems to be a marker for a better diet. Over and over again, children who are regular milk consumers have overall better diets," says Johnson. Nonmilk drinkers "chose high-sugar beverages that are devoid of nutrients, like soft drinks." Unfortunately, some well-meaning schools, worried about obesity, have restricted flavored milk, she says. Her research shows that flavored milk drinkers had no higher overall sugar intake than nonmilk drinkers.
Many experts think the flavored milks help prevent kids from turning to sodas. Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition says that milk consumption declines as the consumption of sugary drinks increases. He likes how the "milk mustache" campaign, recently featuring the cast of "High School Musical," Rihanna, David Beckham, Amanda Bynes, Alex Rodriguez, Carrie Underwood and Sasha Cohen helps eliminate milk's sometimes "uncool" image. The dairy industry is also working on hipper packaging to help milk seem more appealing to kids. Currently 9,500 of the nation's 90,000 schools have started using single-serving plastic containers instead of the old-fashioned cartons. And fast-food restaurants like McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Subway are also offering milk in bottles.
Milk may also be good for adults trying to slim down. It makes people feel satiated, or full, says Dr. Robert Heaney, professor of medicine at Creighton University and a nutrition researcher. He says the high protein content of milk helps people preserve their muscle mass when they're trying to lose weight. Without it, "you may well easily get below the requirement for protein, and then the body has no choice but to invade its own protein stores," he says. The essential amino acids in milk help protect protein and muscle mass, he says. That said, milk is "not a magic bullet, he says. But it will be more "satisfying" than drinking sugary sodas.
Obesity researcher Michael Zemel, professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of Tennessee, says "calories count"—but thinks milk alters "our metabolic efficiency." "On an adequate dairy diet, you're less likely to store fat," he says. "And you're stimulating a process of using calories in muscle cells." Milk and yogurt act the same way, but cheese and ice cream contain less protein and don't work as well, he says.
However, other researchers remain skeptical about milk actually causing weight loss. "I just don't think that one food is going to help you lose weight. Weight is about calories, unpopular as that might be," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "It's an indicator of what [people] eat generally. If they drink milk, they're not drinking sodas, at least to the same extent."
Either way, milk is packed with vitamins and minerals, like calcium, phosphorous and magnesium, and it's good for bones. But consume it in moderation. "If people are drinking gallons of milk and are not eating other foods, it's not healthy," says Nestle. "It's perfectly possible to gain weight on dairy foods."