Milk is a childhood friend you're not sure is still good for you. You loved it when you were younger but now you can't decide if that's because everyone told you to or if it's actually healthy. It doesn't help that every article out there is contradictory. Trust me, I read them all.
Well, I wanted to know whether to say goodbye to my friend forever or if it was alright to visit once in awhile so I spent admittedly way too long digging up the real facts on whether milk is actually bad for you or not.
The past few years have had an influx of anti-milk messages that warn against the dangers of dairy and there are some pretty compelling arguments. I've looked into all the ones I can and gathered as much evidence as I could find (with as little bias as one can get) to help you decide whether it's time to cut dairy out of your life. Here's what I found.
Why We Drink Milk
The reason Mom always made you finish your milk is to build strong bones. Milk is one of the best sources of calcium and potassium. Many companies fortify milk with Vitamin D
because it helps the body better absorb that calcium. So the first part is true, it's good for your bones. And potassium is good for your heart and helps your kidney filter blood.
Weightlifters may be inclined to love milk because of the natural protein in each glass. 20% of that protein is whey
, a "fast protein" athletes love because of how quickly it rebuilds muscles. The other 80% of that protein is casein
which is digested slower. Both have huge markets in the supplement department and are vital for muscle building.
We drink different types of milk, too. There's been a lot of debate about all that as well. I'll try to simplify it.
Milk is naturally 3.5% fat. Whole milk leaves all that fat in along with all those nutrients talked about above. Whole milk is gaining popularity again because fat is coming back into diet trends. That's a whole different topic entirely.
Fat Free, Skim and % Milk
Fat Free and skim milk are different names for the same product - milk with all the fat removed. Percentage milk, like 2% milk, indicated how much of the milk is fat. So instead of the full 3.5%, 2% has, well, 2%. There's no nutrients lost in these either, just fat so personal preference and diet restrictions are the only factors in how you choose what milk.
This all seems like a no brainer, let's just drink milk. It's full of nutrients and we can get it fat free without issue. Yeah, I wish it was that easy too. But the discussions get a little complicated.
The Argument Against Milk
"We shouldn't be drinking it"
This one is a little abstract so stick with me here. The idea is that when we were little humans living in caves, we hunted and gathered our food instead of farmed it. This meant there were no cows we could cultivate milk from because we were always on the move. We only drank milk from our mothers for nutrition until we could eat other foods. So why do it now when we're adults? The argument is that our bodies aren't properly adapted to digest milk past infancy, leading into why such a large number of our population is lactose intolerant. More on that later.
Now, this is a theory. There's no proof one way or another because frankly we didn't have documentary crews back then. And I'm not that type of college graduate so I'll just leave it alone and let you decide on what to believe. Call it a win for Team No Milk.
"It's actually bad for you"
This argument stems from studies that suggest calcium supplements may not help and could actually hinder bone health. But those studies were about calcium supplements
(not dairy products) which can be consumed without doctor notice and elevate levels higher than recommended. In case you're wondering, the average adult age 19-50 needs about 1,000 mg of calcium daily if they don't have bone issues. You also need 600 mg of Vitamin D in order to absorb that calcium. Again, unless you're special. So if you're drinking an insane amount of milk, like a gallon a day, you might be hurting yourself. Too much of anything is usually bad for you. But a regular three-glass a day diet doesn't seem to be dangerous.
Arguments also state that you should be getting the same nutrients found in milk from plants, like proteins. The idea is that plant proteins are easier to absorb and our body doesn't process animal protein - effectively saying we're not getting as much nutrition as we may think. Many of these articles cited this source
(which is actually citing this article
). The article in question actually states that the excess calcium in milk is dispelled through urine, so we only get about half the nutrients from milk than we think. What's most interesting is that it goes on to say that animal and plant sources both have their advantages and disadvantages. Like animal sources usually contain more protein, so even though we're not getting all of it, we're getting enough. Plants don't contain as much so we have to eat more, even if we're absorbing all of the nutrients. It all depends on other nutrients associated in what you're eating and the rest of your diet.
There's also a lot of talk about milk being bad for your heart but honestly there are so many conflicting studies on it that it remains inconclusive either way.
So no, milk isn't actually bad for you. In that respect at least.
Antibiotics and Hormones
Time to get into the dirty facts of the dairy industry. Antibiotics are used to treat dairy cows when sick. The FDA monitors the milk to make sure there's no residue in the milk being sold to consumers. However, a 2015 study
found that some dairy farmers were using illegal antibiotics to treat cows and these antibiotics weren't showing up on the initial tests. It was only around 1% of the milk but it caused quite a stir.
Growth hormones are also used to increase milk production in cows. This was approved by the FDA back in the 90s. There's no evidence
that the hormones affect us, though. What little hormone that reaches the milk is usually killed in pasteurization and what's not can't make it out of our own digestive system, making it ineffective to our body. Even the cancer-connected IGF hormone has had no studies come back positive for immune response.
Now, this could still be concerning for you especially if you're already against hormone and antibiotic use on food. For one thing, the FDA doesn't make any of the companies label the hormone use and it's already gotten out that farmers may be using irresponsible methods to get their goods. More so, growth hormones have a significantly negative impact on the cattle including mastitis, lameness and even reproductive issues. It's no wonder animal rights activists are against the milk industry.
Raw, Pasteurized and Everything In Between
If the issue with milk is the dairy farms, you might be tempted to look locally. The Raw Milk movement is certainly gaining speed not just culturally but in government too. So what's the difference between raw, pasteurized and organic milk?
Raw milk comes straight from the cow. With the extra freshness comes bigger fat molecules that create cream on top of the milk and a richer flavor. It's unlike most milk you see at the grocery store and has a lot of reputation surrounding it. While one side swears up and down about the benefits, the other condemns it.
The FDA and the CDC are really against raw milk. Like really against it. That's because it's unpasteurized, usually unregulated and until very recently (and still in select states) illegal. It's easy to contaminate and has been cited for many foodborne illnesses like salmonella.
So the popularity may be baffling but it's a hit among the healthy food crowd. There's no growth hormones or antibiotic treatments forced on the cows. Most raw milk comes from smaller, local farms that can tend to each cow individually. Many of the farmers drink the milk themselves and give it to their families so they take all precautions to keep it clean and safe. These cows are grass-fed and the milk preserves the natural enzymes that are lost during pasteurization. Many see this as a health benefit. If you trust the farmer and the milk, the advocates say it's relatively safe.
This one you might not have heard of but it's usually on the label of smaller farms. See, bigger companies will mix harvested milk from several herds together to decrease the fat consistency. It makes it easier to process the fat out of the milk into percentage milk or fat free as opposed to skimming the cream off the top. It's all mechanical and there's no chemicals.
Smaller farms can decide not to do this and some claim it's better for you. There doesn't seem to be any studies on the issue, only personal preference. The "non" in front means it hasn't been mixed.
Pasteurizing milk simply means heating it to a certain temperature to kill off bacteria. It has no impact on whether the milk is organic or if it's been homogenized. As long as it's heated and treated, it's pasteurized.
Low temperature pasteurization means heating smaller vats of milk to a lower temperature for a longer period of time. It still kills off bacteria but can preserve some of the taste of raw milk. This is usually found in the health markets from local and pasture-raised cows.
This is probably what you're looking for if you don't want the little risk of growth hormones and antibiotics in your cows. This means they're grass-fed and all the organic practices are followed to produce as close to pure and safe milk as possible. However, it's important to know that getting an official "organic" seal can be costly and some smaller farms may be operating organically without the title. If you're going local you can ask and decide if you want to trust them.
You're Probably Lactose Intolerant
Okay, so the use of "probably" is jumping the gun in some cases but over 60% of the world's population can't properly digest dairy. This results in symptoms like flatulence, diarrhea, stomach cramps or bowel discomfort and just generally being miserable after consuming dairy. It's a skewed statistic though, because depending on where you're from and your heritage, chances could sway more towards it.
The highest percentage of people to be lactose intolerant are East Asians (90-100%), Native Americans (80-100%) and Central Asians (80%) while the lowest appear to be British (5-15%), German (15%) and Austrian (15-20%) with everyone else in between. The full chart is here
So yeah, you could be lactose intolerant. You may think that gets you off the hook on deciding whether to have dairy or not but there are ways
you can still enjoy an ice cream without feeling sick. Still, with so many people unable to digest it, it's hard to be sure why milk is such a staple in our diets (at least in North America).
Milk - A Diet Necessity?
Not really. Sure, it's packed full of nutrients but nature is full of variety. So if you don't want to continue with milk in your diet, don't. We don't make people with nut allergies eat peanuts for the nutrients. Most diets are about balance and it's important to fulfill that with what you're consuming. If you cut something out, you need to replace it. Milk is an easy way to get certain vitamins. It's also part of our Western Culture. That doesn't mean there aren't ways around it if you're willing to do the work.
Common Milk Alternatives:
Lactose Free Milk - contains already processed lactose so people who can't break it down don't have to. Still has all the nutritional value as regular milk.
Almond Milk - cholesterol and lactose free. Usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Not a good source of protein. Careful of flavored milks with added sugar content.
Soy Milk - good source of protein, potassium and usually fortified with calcium. No cholesterol and lower in calories than cow's milk. However, too much soy can cause hormone imbalance like high estrogen levels.
Rice Milk - no lactose or nuts and can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D. High in carbs but low in protein. Good for people with nut allergies that can't try almond milk.
If you're getting rid of milk all together, make sure you're getting enough calcium
and B vitamins
. You can get these from regular food like kale for calcium and eggs for vitamin D. There are a lot of vegan sites with tips, even if you aren't going full vegan. There are also supplements to help, just make sure to talk to your doctor about your diet change.
Did you get all that? I've got a summary below in case you didn't. Ask me any questions or let me know your thoughts! I'm not a doctor and would love to hear others opinions on this diet dilemma. Tag us on Facebook
or message us directly so we can see your comments! And tune in next week for another healthy dose of news.
|Calcium, Potassium, Vitamin D and Protein (20% Whey / 80% Casein)||We only absorb half of the calcium in milk|
|FDA monitors all antibiotics in milk and rejects all batches that contain them||Farmers have proven to be able to get around the FDA|
|Any growth hormones remaining after pasteurization can't get past regular human digestion||Growth hormones have negative effects on cattle|
|Raw and Organic milk doesn't contain growth hormones or antibiotics||Raw milk is not considered safe by the FDA or CDC|
|Supplements help digest lactose for those that can't||65% of the world's population is lactose intolerant|
Milk isn't necessary in a diet, it can be replaced in the diet with help from a doctor or nutritionist.