Is Milk Bad for You?

by drcase on January 25, 2010

milkLately I’ve heard a lot of people saying that cow’s milk is not good for humans.  Researching a lot of the comments against milk, I’ve found a lot of the people who say milk is bad for you are animal rights activists or people disposed towards the vegan lifestyle.  Whether to eat meat or animal products is a personal decision, but it doesn’t have a bearing on whether milk is healthy or not for those who choose to drink it.    

One of the most popular arguments I’ve heard against drinking milk is that it is unnatural. We humans are the only beings to drink the milk of another species and to drink milk at all past infancy. To some, this seems like a perversion of the natural order. Now, I actually do have some opinions on these issues but this isn’t the time or the place to discuss opinions.  For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to stick to the nutritional issues. 

Here are the positive aspects of milk in your diet.

  1. It’s a good source of high-quality protein. Now, most Americans get more than enough protein in their diet. However, it is a relatively inexpensive source of protein, which can be helpful for those who are raising families on tight budgets.
  2. Dairy products are rich in calcium. Most Americans don’t get enough calcium in their diet, which raises concerns over our long-term bone health.  To get calcium without consuming dairy products, you need to eat things like canned salmon or sardines, legumes, kale, broccoli, and other green vegetables, plus calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk. Only a determined adult can get the recommended daily dose (1,000 milligrams) this way, but good luck getting a child to eat all that. 
  3.  Dairy products are a major source of vitamin D in the American diet. It’s ironic because dairy products contain no vitamin D naturally. In fact, there aren’t a lot of foods that do. Therefore, the government mandated that milk and other dairy products be fortified with D.  However, many brands of soy milk and other non-dairy alternatives are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  4. There have been some studies, many of them funded by the dairy industry, suggesting that Americans who eat more dairy products tend to be thinner than those who eat less.  The dairy industry has made a big deal out of this.  On the other hand, there are cultures where people eat little or no dairy and are much healthier than Americans, so I tend to think that dairy products are not some sort of magic bullet for weight loss. 

Now let’s consider the negative aspects of dairy in the diet.

  1. Dairy foods can be high in fat and, therefore, calories. Low-fat dairy foods, such as skim milk and low-fat cottage cheese, have had most of the fat skimmed off, and they can be good choices for those of you who are counting calories.  But all the good stuff, like cheese, ice cream, and butter, are not necessarily good for the waistline.
  2. In higher fat dairy products, most of the fat is saturated fat. Diets high in saturated fats can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease.  It’s easy to switch to the low-fat variety of those foods.  But to keep fat consumption under control, you need to stick to low-fat everything, not just milk. 
  3. Dairy products can have high levels of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones Because of the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk yields, some studies say cow’s milk promotes breast cancer; others say it suppresses it. Some studies suggest milk is linked to significantly elevated risk of prostate cancer; other says the risk is insignificant or nonexistent.  Some investigators have found milk protects against colorectal cancer; others say the opposite.  In short, research to date has been all over the place.  Don’t trust blanket statements about little-known dangers or benefits of milk–for example, PETA’s claim that milk causes osteoporosis.  (For the record, current evidence suggests that young women who drink milk reduce their risk, but that the protective benefit diminishes as they age.)  But there are concerns that milk may be contaminated with hormone residue, antibiotics used to treat udder infections, and dangerously elevated levels of a natural growth factor called IGF-1.  At this point no human health risk stemming from rBGH use has been demonstrated, but one never knows. 
  4. Dairy products contain lactose, a type of milk-sugar that many people have difficulty digesting because they lack the digestive enzyme lactase.  Lactose intolerance affects between 10-20% of the population.  You are much more likely to be lactose intolerant if you are of African, Asian, or Native American heritage.  Lactose-reduced dairy products or lactase tablets can allow lactose intolerant people to eat dairy with fewer difficulties. 
  5. Although cow’s milk allergies are fairly rare in adults, many babies and small children are allergic to milk, and experience symptoms including ear infections, skin rashes, and digestive problems.  Avoiding dairy products can alleviate symptoms.

So where does all of this leave us?  Frankly, I can’t make a case for dairy being essential to a healthy diet.  There are plenty of other ways to get protein, calcium, and vitamin D.  Adults in other cultures get along without milk, and so can you with a little ingenuity.  But I wouldn’t try giving up milk purely because of the supposed health concerns.  If you like dairy products and you can tolerate them, I think you can enjoy them in good health, as long as you consume them in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

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  • WJ Alden

    Get out a map of the world and take a gander. There's a language family, Indo-European, that began probably somewhere in southern Russia that now circles the globe.

    A map showing it's distribution can be seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IE_countries.svg

    The dark green parts of the globe were settled (or conquered) by people who spoke these languages.

    Now here's the kicker: there's strong evidence to indicate that the spread of the Indo-European languages is co-extensive with…the gene for lactase persistence (i.e., lactose tolerance). People who were able to consume milk – cow's milk – into adulthood conquered the world. That's an amazing feat for people consuming something that was so unhealthy for them, don't you think?

    It may be that the advantage to drinking milk was simply a ready supply of calories at a time when access to calories wasn't so easy. Or it may be that milk is particularly nutritious.

    Point 3 is invalid – you don't have to drink milk with pesticides or hormones. For most of history people didn't.

    Point 4 is invalid for the people with lactose tolerance, because they have that gene. If there were a food that only blacks or Asians could gain nutritional benefit from would you argue that they shouldn't eat it because whites can't? Really, the argument that whites shouldn't drink milk because most blacks and Asians can't actually sounds kind of racist.

    Point 1 is invalid because it's about your overall caloric intake. Consumption of snacks, sodas, and fast food is clearly the prime cause of obesity.

    Point 2 is invalid partly for the same reasons that point 1 is invalid, and partly because our bodies need saturated fat.

    I am not saying that the issue is settled. I am just saying that the con points aren't very convincing. From my own perspective, I didn't drink much milk as a kid because I hated the taste, and I didn't turn out to be the healthiest or most athletic person around. I 've had more than my share of broken bones, back problems, and shin splits/stress fractures from running, though I'm not suggesting that the two are necessarily related.

  • drcaricase

    WJ,
    Thank you for your input. I always appreciate hearing another point of view. When I was researching this post, I saw an article saying that even organic milk cannot be guaranteed to be free of hormones. That was a little alarming to me, if it's true. Personally, I believe there's nothing wrong with milk, but I wanted to list the objections I have read or heard so people could make up their own mind. Thanks again for your comment. I hope to hear from you again in the future.

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