Milk, the white stuff we poor over our cereal, in our coffee and paired with cookies as a comforting treat no matter what age you are. But is it good for you? Celebs like Alicia Silverstone and Megan Fox—who have espoused vegan or paleo diets—trumpet the supposed evils of dairy, but is it a passing fad or is the overall milk consumption has been falling around the world as we shift away from dairy-based diets in the last 20 years.
Recent research and certain lobbying groups suggest our long-held belief that milk is good for us may be incorrect -so is our millennia-long love affair with the good stuff wrong? Are the long-held beliefs of the calcium and nutrients it contains is the best source for us to get these?
Let’s look at the facts.
Milk: the good stuff
Milk is said to contain 18 out of 22 essential nutrients and to have these in abundance. It contains more calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc as well as more protein per calorie than any other food in a healthy diet. Calcium, for example, providing 28% of our daily allowance per 224g, Vitamin A is 15% per 224g, and phosphorus is a whopping 24% per 224g. Meaning milk is an all-round good nutrient provider in a balanced diet.
It also provides a source of iron, selenium, vitamin B-6, vitamin E, Vitamin K, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin. The downside to all this, of course, is that milk especially whole milk has more fat than other types of ‘milk’ although this can be offset in the manufacturing process with semi-skimmed, skimmed, half fat, etc.
Although this does not mean milk causes obesity in fact a small study in 2013 showed that it can make you feel fuller. So it could actually help with some weight loss despite containing some natural sugars and higher fat content. Milk has also been shown to be good to hydrate people with fat content and sodium keeps the liquid inside the body whereas water and milk alternatives tend to quickly pass through the body hence their reputation as detoxifiers.
The proteins in milk also provide casein and whey protein that are necessary to build and maintain healthy bone, teeth, and muscle. One cup of milk provides around 6 to 7 grams of the proteins which is around 45% of the recommended daily allowance for an adult.
Improved weight (of bones) and bone density in children have also been linked to the consumption of milk. Milk is also said to have helped reduce bone fractures and those pregnant women who had a diet rich in dairy and calcium-rich foods had babies with better bone growth and mass.
But it is not just children and babies who benefit but also preteens and the elderly- especially women- who were found to have better bone health from a milk rich diet- and those over 75 were shown to have a higher muscle mass when having a milk rich diet.
Following on from the good nutrients it provides to bones; milk also provides the potassium and magnesium important for healthy teeth. With a glass of milk providing around 30% of adult’s daily needs, Milk may also help prevent cavities.
Milk helps reduce dental plague in older adults due to the added vitamin D in milk as well as the calcium and phosphorus already mentioned.
Heart health and type 2 diabetes were also helped by milk. Several studies have found a potential link between the whey protein in milk and the prevention of developing type 2 diabetes as well as helping to improve blood sugar. Milk also helps raise the “good” cholesterol which helps prevent heart disease and strokes; as well as being a good source of potassium that helps reduce blood pressure.
Milk: not all it’s cracked up to be?
Despite the many studies suggesting that milk is good for us some have also linked milk to some worrying health implications. RBST, or bovine somatotropin, which is a hormone that is given to cows that don’t produce a lot of milk has been the main rallying point for a lot of added fears and lobbying about the health implications of milk.
Milk and its lauded calcium content have been linked to a possible increase in the risk of prostate cancer due to the high calcium content. Ovarian cancer has also been linked to the sugars found naturally in milk.
Furthermore, production methods of milk have been linked to risk in some cancers. Growth hormones given to cows meant that some milk has higher level of a chemical linked to cancer development. Although more studies are needed on the long-term effects of these hormones and on antibiotics given to cows.
Milk’s calcium content has also come under fire for the potential to make fracturing of bones more common. 3 glasses of milk a day has been found to increase bone fractures in women study of 60,000 Swedish women found those who drank 21 daily ounces or more had a 60 percent higher risk of hip fracture (possibly due to a milk sugar that may have a weakening effect on bones) and the elderly are equally at risk with those with osteoarthritis being more likely to fracture a bone when on a calcium-rich diet.
Some researchers have linked this to cow’s milk being broken down in the body producing acid and calcium is an acid neutralizer, so instead of being able to consume all the calcium in milk the body can use it to neutralize this acid as well as having to use some of our own stores so as bones get more porous as you get older then too much calcium is stripping the bones of their calcium.
Although this is yet to undergo more rigorous studies a tentative link has been found and the study that found it said more research was needed to cement the link.
Allergies and lactose intolerance are also on the rise; with cow’s milk has a higher amount of lactose than other milks, and with an estimated 75% of the world’s population having varying degrees of lactose intolerance meaning gastrointestinal or digestive problems for people who have a deficiency of the lactase enzyme, cow’s milk could be more bad than good for our digestion and body depending on the severity of the intolerance however most lactose-intolerant people can comfortably handle dairy in moderation.
Allergies to milk are also on the rise especially in young children with about 5% of children having an allergy. This can present as skin reactions, gut symptoms and more seriously analphylaxic shock. Although Children may grow out of milk allergies. Adults can also develop a milk allergy. Antibiotics given to dairy cows may also be linked to milk allergies, this still needs further research.
Skin conditions such as eczema and acne worsening have been linked to milk consumption. A study from 2016 found that teenagers with acne drank higher amounts of low-fat or skim milk. Although other studies ruled out whole milk and cheese as causing acne to get worse.
Clinical reviews also found eczema was worsened by a high dairy diet. Although a study from 2018 has shown that pregnant women who add milk and probiotic drinks to their diets reduced a child’s risk of eczema. So, again, further research is needed on this link.
Rosacea- a skin condition that causes facial pinkness or redness with visible blood vessels- has also been found to be triggered by milk in adults due to the absorption of calcium being prohibited.
All in all various research has shown both the good and the bad of milk. Being linked to both positive and negative health conditions both due to the natural content of milk and added vitamins and nutrients.
However, milk is a nice portable form to gain a substantial amount of nutrients and is particularly important for children and may help maintain a child’s good health. It should be noted that nutrient content varies with grass-fed or pastured cows providing more vitamins than those not. Furthermore, research is needed on the amount of milk that’s more beneficial and the effects of antibiotics and hormone growth given to cows.
At the end of the day, milk is just another food with complicated backstory and like with most things consuming in moderation is best.