Among Americans age 20 and older, over 100 million have total blood cholesterol levels of 200 mg per decaliter or higher, according to the American Heart Association. They are more at risk for some of America's leading causes of death such as heart disease and stroke. While the majority of cholesterol is produced by your own body, the food you eat --- including milk --- also plays a significant role in your cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol and Fat
There are two types of cholesterol --- high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, and low-density lipoprotein or LDL. The latter is considered "bad" cholesterol and is directly affected by the food you eat. Saturated and trans fats, found primarily in meat and milk and dairy products, are the two main causes of increased LDL levels. However, unsaturated fats from plants and fatty fish help to lower bad cholesterol.
Milk is a very nutritious food, but it also contains saturated fats primarily in the form of triglycerides. The composition of nutrients in milk varies based on the breed of cow, its diet, the season and geographic differences, according to the University of Guelph in Canada. As a result, only an approximate fat content for milk can be given. It usually ranges between 2.4 and 5.5 percent. The higher the fat content in milk, the more it can elevate LDL cholesterol levels. But some people are more sensitive to this effect than others.
Too much bad cholesterol builds up in your arteries and forms a plaque that narrows and hardens the arteries. In this condition, which is called atherosclerosis, blood flow and oxygen levels are impaired. Over time, atherosclerosis can damage your heart, causing coronary artery disease, angina, a heart attack or stroke.
Reducing Milk Fat
Milk and milk products are among America's favorite foods, so it can be difficult eliminating or reducing it in your diet. Start by choosing low-fat or fat-free options such as fat-free or skim milk and low-fat cheeses or ice cream. One cup of whole milk contains three times the amount of fat found in low-fat or 1 percent milk, states the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Substitute soy milk or rice drink fortified with calcium, vitamin D and iron whenever possible. Also, buy margarine with plant sterols that reduce cholesterol levels to use instead of butter.
If you cut milk out of your diet completely to lower your cholesterol levels, it's essential you increase your calcium intake from other food sources. Other products besides soy milk and rice drink are fortified with calcium, such as fruit juices. Also, green leafy vegetables, fish with small bones and nuts contain calcium. Speak to your doctor to see if you should take calcium and vitamin D supplements.