Milk: Is It Healthy or Harmful to Drink?

By Rachel Segal
 ox Photos / Stringer
Most of us grew up hearing that milk “does a body good.” No one questioned it, what with parents, doctors and teachers all echoing the same sentiment, directly and indirectly. Think about it, did you ever encounter a stack of pancakes, sandwich or plate of cookies without an accompanying glass of milk?
Over the years, though, more and more research has emerged leading us to reevaluate milk’s attributes and starring role in our lives.  Is it a key or a risk to our health?  Here are three arguments for drinking milk and three against it.

Arguments for Consuming Milk


It packs a single punch of needed nutrients

Our bodies need calcium, vitamin D and potassium to function properly. 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, milk also contains carbs, fats, proteins and other minerals, all of which are a must for growing children.  True, milk isn’t the only source for all of these needed nutrients. But, come on, isn’t it easier to get yourself – and especially your kids – to gulp down an extra glass of milk each day than to eat more vegetables? It’s no secret that Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to meet the federal daily dietary guidelines.


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 the milk. Dairy products, including milk, have higher concentrations per serving of highly absorbable calcium than vegetables, beans and other alternatives.


It helps with weight loss

Milk naturally boasts a high level of high-quality protein. In fact, it actually contains two types of protein. By drinking just one cup of milk, you’ll get 8 grams of protein, which is more than double the amount most whole grains and 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.


Arguments against Drinking Milk


Leads to increased health risks

Decades of research asserts that milk may contribute to health problems as opposed to preventing them. Some sources believe that milk’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. Milk 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 (see argument 2 above), recent voices suggest otherwise.  For example, a 2011 scientific review found that drinking milk did not reduce the risk of fractures in women. In fact, a 2014 study suggested that women who consumed large amounts of milk 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, our gene that is required to break down milk sugar (lactose) turns off during weaning. Some researches argue that a genetic mutation is the only reason we, in the Western world (where dairying has been a longstanding tradition), can tolerate milk 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.

Bottom Line: Drinking milk is a great (and convenient) way to boost your daily intake of vitamins and minerals but contrary to popular belief, it may not be the best way to protect your bone integrity. Are you going to think twice before taking your next glass?

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