Does milk really make you grow taller?

We’ve been taught since we were children to drink plenty of milk for strong bones and to ensure we grow up big and tall but, over the past few years, the backlash to the white stuff has been growing exponentially. There are mounting concerns about the potential health consequences of drinking too much cow’s milk, primarily thanks to the cocktail of hormones and antibiotics the animals take in over their lifespan, along with rising rates of dairy allergies among young children.

With the wide range of alternative and plant-based milks on offer, from soy to rice and everything in between, is there any justification for this idea anymore, scientifically speaking? Does milk really have any affect on height?

Growth is primarily about genetics and milk won't affect this

Anthropologist Andrea Wiley, who has been studying the subject for years, told Modern Farmer the idea of drinking milk for growth comes from “intuitive understanding.” When any kind of mammal is drinking milk, it’s during a period of rapid growth. It first gained traction during the 1920s and, once the National Dairy Council got on-board, there was no stopping it. 

However, Wiley says that regardless of the 100 years of clever marketing, growth has more to do with genetics than anything else. Your maximum height is determined by the genes you inherit, and you can’t alter it no matter what you do, or drink. Milk does contain the protein growth factor 1, or IGF-1, which encourages cell growth and is often used to treat children with height disorders, but even increasing your intake won’t really help, as it’s something that is already naturally produced by the human body.

“My sense is you can only grow to your genetic potential for height. I don’t think you can take extra IGF-1 even if you’re growing really well and expect to grow even more,” Wiley argues.

There is research to suggest cow's milk is more effective for growth

And yet, there’s evidence to suggest otherwise. In a 2017 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pediatricians examined the difference between growth in children who drank about 8 ounces of non-cow’s milk per day versus those who drank the same amount of cow’s milk. There was a tiny difference between the two groups: Those who drank the non-cow’s milk were, on average, 0.2 inches shorter than their dairy-guzzling counterparts. Moreover, 3-year-olds who drank alternative milk were about half an inch shorter than those who drank cow’s milk.

Pediatric endocrinologist Mark DeBoer told Newsweek, ” This study does fit with prior research showing cow’s milk is associated with taller stature over time,” although it may have more to do with the hormones added to the milk. DeBoer also noted kids who were lactose intolerant, for example, might find their growth differed as a result of their allergy and the resulting malabsorption of nutrients more so than anything else.

While the answer to whether or not milk really makes you taller is a bit murky, one thing’s for sure: It’s good for you. Wiley explains, “There’s no question that milk is very rich in calories, rich in protein, has a bunch of vitamins and minerals in it. It’s a very nutritious food. If it’s part of a diet, it certainly is contributing to a child’s nutrition.”

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