The Pros and Cons of Drinking Dairy Milk

Milk is one of the most popular yet controversial foods on the market.
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There are several varieties of milk out there, including lactose-free milk, whole milk, fat-free milk and flavored versions.

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All types of milk are high in protein, calcium and vitamin D — important nutrients our bodies need. But it might not be the best beverage for everyone, which is why there's a lot of debate on the health benefits and disadvantages of milk.

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Milk Nutrition

Per 1 cup

Fat-Free Milk

Low-Fat Milk (2%)

Whole Milk

Calories

83

122

149

Fat

0.2 g

4.8 g

7.9 g

Saturated Fat

0.1 g

3.1 g

4.6 g

Carbs

12.2 g

11.7 g

11.7 g

Sugar

12.5 g

12.3 g

12.3 g

Protein

8.3 g

8.1 g

7.7 g

Calcium

23% Daily Value (DV)

23% DV

21% DV

Vitamin D

15% DV

15% DV

16% DV

Phosphorous

20% DV

18% DV

16% DV

Source: USDA

Milk is high in calcium and vitamin D, two essential nutrients that most Americans don't get enough of, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It's also a source of zinc, magnesium, potassium and B-complex vitamins.

Just remember that flavored varieties are higher in sugar and calories.

The Pros of Drinking Milk

Milk can nourish your body with several important nutrients and it may also help you stay satiated.

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1. It Might Help Balance Blood Sugars

Drinking milk in the morning may reduce post-meal blood sugar levels, increase satiety and suppress appetite, per an October 2018 study in the Journal of Dairy Science.

That means milk may help with weight loss and diabetes management.

2. It Supports Bone Health

Milk is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, and your body needs these nutrients to build and maintain bone mass.

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According to an October 2015 review in the journal ​Calcified Tissue International,​ eating up to three servings of dairy foods daily is safe and can support bone health. Researchers point out that dairy products, especially low-fat varieties, don't increase heart disease risk.

What's more, kids who didn't drink milk had lower height, body weight and bone mineral content than those who did, per the October 2015 review.

3. It's Nutrient-Dense

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, which means it provides more benefits.

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Plus, 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 as well as immune function, per a May 2019 paper in ​Nutrients​.

The Cons of Drinking Milk

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.

1. It May Hurt Our Bones

An October 2014 study in The BMJ linked high milk intakes with a greater risk of mortality and fractures in women. People who drank three or more glasses of milk daily have also experienced an increase in oxidative stress and inflammatory markers.

But take this with a grain of salt: This study is observational, which means it doesn't prove cause and effect, and more research needs to be done to confirm the findings.

Also worth noting: Fermented milk products, such as yogurt and kefir, appear to be safe.

2. Is It Linked to Certain Diseases?

Milk and its derivatives may contribute to heart problems and certain types of cancer, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

In November 2019, ​The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​ published a meta-analysis highlighting the disadvantages of milk and cheese and found that these foods have been linked to higher rates of prostate and colorectal cancers, especially when taken in large amounts.

A more recent February 2020 epidemiological study in the ​International Journal of Epidemiology ​found a link between drinking cow's milk and breast cancer. These types of studies are not clinical, so they can't determine cause and effect, but instead indicate a potential association.

But for every study that confirms the dangers of milk, there's another one showing the opposite. For example, a November 2016 review in Food & Nutrition Research compared several studies on the benefits and disadvantages of dairy products. Researchers suggest that milk and dairy are linked to lower rates of childhood obesity, increased bone mineral density and lower rates of cancer. Plus, no relationship has been found between these foods and all-risk mortality.

To make things even more confusing, milk and its derivatives have been linked to a lower risk of breast cancer in a December 2015 paper in the ​Journal of Breast Cancer.

3. Some People Are Allergic or Intolerant to It

Some people can't drink milk and eat dairy because they're allergic to these foods.

A milk allergy may cause hives, swelling of the face and mouth, watery eyes, digestive distress, stomach cramps, vomiting, bloody stools and other symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic. In general, these adverse reactions occur within a few minutes or hours after drinking milk or eating foods that contain this ingredient.

Up to 3 percent of children under 3 years of age experience allergic reactions to milk, but about 80 percent outgrow this condition by age 16, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. If you have symptoms, the only way to manage them is to avoid milk and dairy altogether.

Another common problem associated with dairy is lactose intolerance. This condition affects your body's ability to digest and process lactose, a sugar that occurs naturally in milk, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Its symptoms are similar to those of milk allergy and may include bloating and gas, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. But if you have lactose intolerance, you might be able to enjoy milk and dairy foods in small amounts without experiencing side effects.

Warning

Milk allergy is a life-threatening condition and may cause anaphylaxis. If you're allergic to milk, avoid all dairy foods.

Dairy-Free Alternatives to Milk

Milk and its derivatives are not the only sources of protein and calcium.

Unsweetened soy milk, for example, provides 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fat and 80 calories per cup. This tasty beverage may relieve hot flashes thanks in part to its high levels of isoflavones (a class of antioxidants), according to an October 2014 study in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Another healthy option is a coconut milk beverage made from real coconut milk. One cup has 0 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbs, 4.5 grams of fat and 45 calories, depending on the brand. 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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