How often do you drink milk or eat dairy? Is it daily, weekly or just occasionally? Think twice before reaching for another glass of milk. Despite its high protein content, this beverage might not be as healthy as you think. The disadvantages of milk and dairy foods range from sluggish digestion to allergic reactions and inflammation.
Milk is one of the controversial foods on the market. Some of its potential drawbacks include a higher risk of fractures, cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
Milk Nutritional Value
Rich in calcium and protein, milk is a favorite choice for kids and grownups alike. In fact, it's the fourth most popular beverage in the United States. Several varieties exist, including lactose-free milk, whole milk, fat-free milk and flavored versions. One cup of whole milk provides:
- 146 calories
- 7.9 grams of protein
- 12.8 grams of carbs
- 7.9 grams of fat
- 28 percent of the DV (daily value) of calcium
- 22 percent of the DV of phosphorus
- 13 percent of the DV of selenium
- 10 percent of the DV of potassium
- 24 percent of the DV of vitamin D
- 26 percent of the DV of riboflavin
- 18 percent of the DV of vitamin B12
This beverage is high in potassium, calcium and vitamin D, three essential nutrients that are under consumed by most Americans. It's also a good source of zinc, magnesium and B-complex vitamins.
The same amount of fat-free milk delivers 80 calories, 8 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbs and zero fat. It also provides 30 percent of the daily recommended calcium intake and 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. Skim milk boasts a similar nutritional value, but it's slightly lower in calcium. Flavored varieties are higher in sugar and calories.
Is Drinking Milk Healthy?
There's a lot of debate on the health benefits and disadvantages of milk. A recent study, which was published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2018, shows that drinking milk in the morning may reduce postprandial blood sugar levels and increase satiety. Therefore, this beverage may help with weight loss and diabetes management.
Milk is also an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. Your body needs these nutrients to build and maintain bone mass. According to a 2016 review featured in the journal Calcified Tissue International, eating up to three servings of dairy foods daily is safe and may improve bone health. Researchers point out that dairy products, especially low-fat varieties, don't increase heart disease risk.
The same source states that up to 40 percent of the calcium in milk — as opposed to 28 to 36 percent of the calcium in fortified foods — is absorbed in the digestive tract. Furthermore, milk and its derivatives are rich in phosphorus, a mineral that increases calcium retention and keeps your bones strong. This beverage also contains protein, which plays a key role in muscle growth and repair, immune function and DNA synthesis.
What's Wrong With Dairy?
Considering the facts mentioned above, it's fair to say that milk and dairy foods have their place in a balanced diet. Yet, vegans and health organizations worldwide advise against drinking milk. PETA, for example, states that cow's milk depletes calcium from our bones, triggers acne and contributes to prostate cancer. The clinical evidence is conflicting, though.
A 2014 study published in The BMJ has linked high milk intakes with a greater risk of mortality and fractures in women. Subjects who consumed three or more glasses of milk daily have also experienced an increase in oxidative stress and inflammatory markers. Fermented milk products, such as yogurt and kefir, appear to be safe.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, milk and its derivatives may contribute to diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular problems and cancer. In 2015, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a meta-analysis that highlights the disadvantages of milk and cheese. These foods have been linked to higher rates of prostate and colorectal cancers, especially when consumed in large amounts.
Pros and Cons of Dairy
For every study that confirms the dangers of milk, there's another one showing the opposite. For example, a 2016 review published in Food & Nutrition Research compared several studies on the benefits and disadvantages of dairy products. Scientists suggest that milk and dairy may prevent childhood obesity, increase bone mineral density and protect against cancer. Furthermore, no relationship has been found between these foods and all-risk mortality.
As researchers note, milk curbs hunger and helps preserves lean mass during weight loss due to its high protein content. Several studies cited in the review suggest that dairy foods may help reduce fat mass and improve body composition. Low-fat dairy products may decrease blood pressure and reduce heart disease risk by a staggering 12 percent. Furthermore, milk and its derivatives have been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer by 6 to 12 percent.
Dairy consumption is controversial. To stay safe, drink milk in moderation and choose organic brands over standard varieties. According to the American Cancer Society, milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone and antibiotics promotes the development of drug-resistant bacteria and may have adverse effects on human health. The hormones administered to cattle, though, are not active in humans.
Milk Allergy and Dairy Intolerance
Some people can't drink milk and eat dairy because they're allergic to these foods. Milk allergy may cause hives, swelling of the face and mouth, watery eyes, digestive distress, stomach cramps, vomiting, bloody stools and other symptoms. In general, these adverse reactions occur within a few minutes or hours after drinking milk or eating foods that contain this ingredient.
As the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology notes, up to 3 percent of children under 3 years of age experience allergic reactions to milk. Approximately 80 percent outgrow this condition by age 16. The only way to manage your symptoms is to avoid milk and dairy altogether.
Milk allergy is a life-threatening condition and may cause anaphylaxis. If you're allergic to milk, avoid all dairy foods.
Another common problem associated with these foods is lactose intolerance. This condition affects your body's ability to digest and process lactose, a sugar that occurs naturally in milk. Its symptoms are similar to those of milk allergy and may include bloating and gas, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Most sufferers, though, are able to consume milk and dairy foods in small amounts without experiencing side effects.
Dairy-Free Alternatives to Milk
Milk and its derivatives are not the only sources of protein and calcium. There are safer, healthier options available. Unsweetened soy milk, for example, provides 3.5 grams of protein, 1.6 grams of carbs, 1.7 grams of fat and 33 calories per cup. It also boasts 3 percent of the daily recommended calcium intake. This delicious beverage may relieve hot flashes and reduce all-cause mortality due to its high levels of isoflavones, a class of antioxidants.
Another healthy option is coconut milk. One cup has 4.6 grams of protein, 6.4 grams of carbs, 48 grams of fat and 445 calories. Despite its high fat content, this beverage promotes weight loss. The medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut milk raise energy expenditure and suppress appetite while reducing body-fat mass.
Depending on your preferences, you may also opt for almond milk, rice milk or hemp milk. These beverages are lactose- and dairy-free, offering both flavor and nutrition. Ideally, choose a brand with no added sugar or artificial flavors.
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- SELFNutritionData: Whole Milk, 3.25% Fat
- Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020: Underconsumed Nutrients and Nutrients of Public Health Concern
- Nutritionix: 0% Fat Free Milk
- Nutritionix: Skim Mlk
- Journal of Dairy Science: Effect of Milk Protein Intake and Casein-to-Whey Ratio in Breakfast Meals on Postprandial Glucose, Satiety Ratings, and Subsequent Meal Intake
- Calcified Tissue International: Effects of Dairy Products Consumption on Health: Benefits and Beliefs
- ACE Fitness: 9 Things to Know About How the Body Uses Protein to Repair Muscle Tissue
- Science Signaling: A Disease-Linked ULPB6 Polymorphism Inhibits NKG2D-Mediated Target Cell Killing by Enhancing the Stability of NKG2D Ligand Binding
- LibreTexts: Other Protein Functions
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- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Health Concerns About Dairy
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Dairy Products, Calcium, and Prostate Cancer Risk
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- American Cancer Society: Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone
- Mayo Clinic: Milk Allergy
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: Milk & Dairy Allergy
- NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Definition & Facts for Lactose Intolerance
- WebMD: What Is Lactose Intolerance?
- Nutritionix: Unsweetened Soy Milk
- Wiley Online Library: British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: Quantitative Efficacy of Soy Isoflavones on Menopausal Hot Flashes
- Wiley Online Library: Cancer: Dietary Isoflavone Intake and All‐Cause Mortality in Breast Cancer Survivors: The Breast Cancer Family Registry
- Nutritionix: Coconut Milk
- Nature: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Impact of Medium and Long Chain Triglycerides Consumption on Appetite and Food Intake in Overweight Men