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Milk: Is It Healthy or Harmful to Drink?

By Rachel Segal
 ox Photos / Stringer
*Updated 2024
Most of us grew up hearing that milk “does a body good.” No one questioned this sentiment, what with parents, doctors and teachers all echoing the same message, directly and indirectly. However, over the years, more and more research has emerged leading us to re-evaluate milk’s attributes and starring role in our lives.  Is it the key to good health or a health (and acne) risk?  Plus, with so many plant-based beverage alternatives flooding the market, who’s to say that cow’s milk truly is the best option?
Here are three arguments for drinking “moo juice” and three suggesting we should reconsider how much of it we drink.


Bottom’s up!


It packs a single punch of needed nutrients

Our bodies need calcium, vitamin D and potassium to function properly. In fact, research suggests that a lack of vitamin D may make you more vulnerable to illnesses, like Covid-19. There’s no better single source for all three of these nutrients than milk.  (For the record, vitamin D is added to fortified milk). Plus, it also contains carbs, fats, proteins and other minerals, all of which are a must for growing children, not to mention for aging adults – and everyone in between.  True, milk isn’t the only source of all of these needed nutrients. As Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to meet the federal daily dietary guidelines, wouldn’t it be easier to get yourself – and especially your kids – to gulp down an extra glass of milk each day than to eat more vegetables?


Prevents osteoporosis

Put simply, osteoporosis is the weakening of our bones. Each year, osteoporosis leads to millions of bone fractures. Increased calcium intake can help prevent or minimize its effects, as calcium is essential for building and maintaining our bones.  Preventing osteoporosis depends on two things: strengthening your bone density early on in life and limiting the amount of bone loss in adulthood. How? By regular exercise and, especially, by getting enough calcium and vitamin D – particularly in the form of milk. Dairy products have higher concentrations per serving of highly absorbable calcium than vegetables, beans and other alternatives.


It can help with weight loss

Milk contains a naturally high level of high-quality protein. In fact, it actually contains two types of protein, called whey and casein. By drinking just one cup of moo juice, you’ll get 8 grams of protein, which is more than double the amount most whole grains, fruits and veggies offer per serving. Why does this matter? Protein plays a big role when it comes to losing and maintaining weight. Among other amazing things, it helps reduce our hunger and appetite. So, one glass of milk can cut off the urge to snack or overeat.

Actually, we don’t need so much milk


Can lead to increased health risks

Decades of research assert that milk may contribute to health problems as opposed to preventing them. Some sources believe that the beverage’s high-fat content can lead to an increased risk of Type 1 diabetes as well as coronary heart disease, heart attacks or strokes. Other research suggests that milk may lead to an increased risk of cancer due to the levels of IGF-1 growth hormones found in milk. While this hormone is normally found in our blood, higher levels of it may stimulate certain cancer cells. Then, there’s a milk allergy, which can be life-threatening. Symptoms range from wheezing to vomiting to a possibly fatal anaphylactic reaction. To a lesser degree, there’s also lactose intolerance. The dairy beverage has also been associated with causing ear infections, coughs, and bloated, upset and gassy tummies. Last but not least, teenagers should be aware that various studies draw a distinct connection between drinking milk and increased acne.


Not proven vital for bone health

While milk has traditionally been considered the go-to source for maintaining bone health, recent voices suggest otherwise.  For example, a 2011 scientific review found that drinking it did not reduce the risk of fractures in women. Sure, it can be a good source of calcium, but it may not be as good for bone health as previous thought and touted. In Japan, for instance, whose population is mostly lactose-intolerant, milk intake is consequently low – but so too are hip fracture rates. In fact, a 2014 study suggested that women who consumed large amounts of the dairy beverage may actually have a higher risk of fractures and death compared to others who drink less.


After infancy, we are not meant to digest dairy

As humans, we are not genetically programmed to drink milk after infancy. In fact, the gene that is required to break down milk sugar (lactose) turns off during weaning. Some researchers argue that a genetic mutation is the only reason we in the Western world (where dairying has been a longstanding tradition) can tolerate it as adults.  But, on the whole, animals don’t drink milk after being weaned and they manage without it, especially since calcium and vitamins can be found in other sources or supplements. Today, consumers are increasingly turning toward plant-based beverages, which are gaining in popularity and market share. Referred to by some as alt-milk, these alternatives, derived from oats, coconuts, soy, macadamia, rice and even peas, among other sources. In fact, the dairy alternatives market is was valued at $29.18 billion in 2023 and is expected to grow at an annual growth rate of 12.6% from 2024 to 2030. So it seems there may be a new trend taking off that our bodies prefer.


The Bottom Line: We have long been told that drinking milk is a great (and convenient) way to boost daily intake of vitamins, minerals and protect bone integrity. However, research brings all of this reasoning into question. Would you consider switching to plant-based beverages the next time you reach for your coffee or a plate of cookies?

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