As a child, my parents would always pour me a big glass of whole milk to drink with my dinner whenever we cooked at home. The only time I was ever allowed to drink something different with dinner was when we ate at a restaurant. Even then, I was naturally inclined to choose chocolate milk (with the spoon left in the cup, of course).
My parents both grew up drinking milk with dinner, so it made sense that they’d practice the same with me. My mom, who was raised on a farm and almost always consumed grass-fed dairy as a child, was a big fan of dairy and cheese with the meals she would prepare. Granted, by the time I was born, we weren’t consuming the same grass-fed, organic dairy that she was as a child and we certainly weren’t bottling up the milk in glass jars.
We drank milk with dinner every night because the vitamin D and calcium content builds strong bones, right? I was often proud of the fact that I never had a broken bone and often attributed that to consuming so much milk. Whenever I would visit a friend’s house and they drank soda, tea, or juice with dinner, I often asked for milk. I was often responded to with a strange gaze. In fact, a lot of my friends didn’t even like milk at all, so they didn’t have it in their home.
Despite my parent’s well-intended attempts to keep my bones strong, most of what we’ve been taught to believe about milk and dairy isn’t completely true.
In this article, you’re going to learn about:
- The nutritional benefits of milk and dairy
- The lack of evidence behind claims about milk building strong bones
- How the fat in milk may not be harmful to us after all
- The potential negative health effects of dairy
- The types of dairy you should consume
Before going any further, I want to recognize that dairy and milk aren’t necessarily “bad” for everyone.
Real dairy products contain many vital nutrients such as calcium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, magnesium, riboflavin, and selenium. Milk also contains vitamin D, but raw cow’s milk actually has virtually no vitamin D, which is why the vitamin D that is added to our milk through a process called fortification to maintain public health and keep rickets at bay. Milk also contains both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, compounds that facilitate numerous functions in the body, many of which are very good for you and your family.
The primary reason we’ve been led to believe that we need milk as an essential component of our diet is simply a marketing initiative on behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who created the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board (NDPRB), which is the primary source of dairy awareness related funding along with a dairy industry lobby group called the National Dairy Council. The NDPRB are the people behind the “Got milk?” and the older “Milk: it does a body good” campaigns.
In 1977, the government published the Dietary Goals for the United States, which did not shine any spotlight on dairy or milk products. As a result, the $47 billion dollar dairy industry provided pushback by lobbying for government endorsement of dairy consumption. Ultimately, Congress created the NDPRB and the dairy industry began to provide more funding (nearly $46 million between 1990 and 2006 alone) and became more aggressive with its lobbying efforts. As a result, the initial food pyramid published in 1992 explicitly recommended specific quantities of milk consumption (2 cups a day), with the most recent revision – now called MyPlate – recommending 3 cups of milk consumption per day.
The dairy industry often provides funding for studies on dairy and milk consumption. Not too surprisingly, however, research has shown that studies funded by the dairy industry were about 8 times more likely to associate dairy consumption with health benefits when compared to those without industry funding.
In fact, there is no evidence directly linking milk consumption to strong bones at all.
Many of the nutrients within milk – mainly calcium and vitamin D – are absolutely essential to bone development, growth, and cellular functioning.
But the calcium needed to build strong bones does not need to come from milk.
In fact, research has demonstrated that countries with populations that have incredibly low rates of milk consumption actually have some of the lowest rates of fractures and osteoporosis (a condition where bones become weak and therefore more susceptible to fractures). On the flip side, it’s also been shown that populations who consume substantial amounts of diary and have higher than average levels of calcium intake, are actually at an increased risk of fractures.
Among other studies which found the same, it’s also been concluded that consuming milk doesn’t decrease the risk of fracturing your hips and consuming higher amounts of calcium doesn’t provide any extra protection against fractures.
All of these studies focused on adults, though. Given that schools are required by the government to serve milk at every single meal to receive federal money for food, then milk must be important for kid’s bones… right?
There is no available evidence linking higher consumptions of calcium in kids to improved bone health or protection against fractures.
For example, in one particular meta-analysis, researchers looked at 58 different studies and clinical trials and found that there is virtually no substantial evidence to support that claim that increasing dietary calcium or dairy leads to stronger bones. A study published in the British Medical Journal which assessed the calcium intake among 2,800 kids found that higher levels of calcium didn’t protect them from fractures. Another study conducted by researchers at The Pennsylvania State University found that the amount of dietary calcium girls ages 12-18 consumed had absolutely no influence on their bone mineral density as they became young adults.
What about the fat in whole milk?
Shortly I’m going to cover some of the reasons that you may want to avoid consuming milk. But despite the government’s recommendations to consume low-fat milk, the fat within whole milk shouldn’t be one of the reasons to avoid it.
In 2014, researchers reviews 72 of some of the most comprehensive studies conducted on dietary fat consumption and its association with heart disease. Ultimately, they concluded that saturated fat and total fat intake have minimal effects on the development of heart disease. Surprisingly, the researchers actually discovered that a type of saturated fat found in milk, margarin acid, may actually lower your overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Research has also shown that those who consume high levels of dietary fat are 30-40% less likely to develop diabetes.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that vitamin D was fortified in our milk? In skim, 1%, and 2% milk, vitamin A is also fortified into the milk because removing the fat also removes the vitamin A. Given that vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, meaning you need fat to properly digest them, adding the vitamins back into the milk is pointless since the fats needed to digest the vitamins in the milk have been removed.
Two of the unsaturated fatty acids in milk are omega-3 and omega-6. Both of these fatty acids have numerous health effects that range from improved cognitive function to improved heart health and decreased levels of inflammation, but omega-3 reigns supreme. Unfortunately, most of us in the United States are consuming too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3.
The cows that are the source of our dairy today are nothing like the cows my mom grew up with on the farm. Traditionally farmed cows contain a protein that is addictive and on the cellular level, similar to morphine-like substances that can negatively affect your brain, especially in kids, sometimes showing an influence on the development of ADHD and autism in clinical studies. When compared to grass-fed cows, traditionally farmed cow’s dairy also have lower levels of vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids, and CLA, one of the healthy forms of omega-6.
Is dairy harmful?
Dairy and milk can be harmful for some, but not everyone.
At the most fundamental level, some research has shown that about 70% of the world experiences milk-associated digestive upset due to lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the main sugar found in dairy, lactose (which is composed of two other types of sugars: galactose and glucose), causes bloating, intestinal upset, and discomfort due to lactase deficiency, which is a when the body doesn’t produce sufficient amounts of the enzyme necessary to properly digest lactose.
On a much more serious note, some of the hormones provided to cows which can show up in our milk have been shown to potentially promote the development of cancer. In particular, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which is a well established driver of cancers and other diseases. A great deal of research has shown that individuals with lower levels of IGF-1 have lower rates of cancer and ultimately live longer. One study that found those who following the government’s milk consumption recommendations – 3 cups of milk per day – for just 12 weeks had a 10% increase in their IGF-1 levels compared to those who didn’t drink milk. In 2014, the World Cancer Research Fund reported that males who consume a substantial amount of dairy had higher rates of cancer.
Some dairy and milk has been shown to contain compounds persistent organic pollutants (POP’s) which may have negative effects on hormone, immune, and neurological function leading to infertility, autoimmune disorders, thyroid dysfunction, and digestive issues. The types POP’s that have been found in dairy include dioxins and furans (byproducts of various industrial biochemical processes) along with aldrin and DDT (pesticides) just to name a few.
For some, diary and milk contain proteins that result in a life-threatening allergic reaction requiring emergency treatment. It’s also possible to experience a less-serious but still concerning inflammatory response from cow’s milk due to the presence of a type of protein called A1 casein. The consumption of A1 casein has been linked to intestinal issues, increased inflammatory markers in your blood, impaired cognitive functioning, and skin issues like eczema, psoriasis and acne.
What type of milk and dairy should you consume?
As a professional and within my personal practices, I don’t necessarily prescribe to one particular dietary approach. When I’m working with a client or making my own nutrition decisions, I make inferences based on my knowledge, preferences, risk threshold, health status, and health goals.
Personally, I regularly consume organic and grass-fed sources of dairy without any major health implications. At the time of publishing this post, I’ve recently made efforts to remove dairy as staples within my diet needed to meet my daily energy and macronutrient requirements, and replacing them with other sources.
I would encourage you to stay intuitive about the types of milk and dairy you and your family are consuming not just at home but at school and work as well.
Here’s what types of dairy sources you should consume in moderation:
- Grass-fed whole milk
- Grass-fed, full fat yogurt with no artificial sweeteners
- Grass-fed, whole cheeses without additives
- Fermented cow’s milk, kefir
- Grass-fed cow’s butter or ghee
- Any dairy products made with goat or sheep’s milk
Here’s what you should avoid:
- Conventionally raised dairy
- Reduced-fat milk (skim, 1% or 2%)
- Yogurt with artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and additives
- Processed cheeses, “cheese” in a can, or any “cheese products”
- Cheeses with any added ingredients (added herbs, peppers, and fruits are okay)
Here’s some other sources of healthy calcium:
- White beans
- Kidney beans
- Sesame seeds
- Calcium fortified cereals and oatmeals
If you notice you have digestive issues during and after consuming dairy, suffer from autoimmune issues, thyroid disorders, skin problems, diabetes, infertility, or other chronic diseases, you may want to consider whether dairy could be a contributing factor to your issues. There are several inexpensive diagnostic tests your physician can order to rule out allergies to milk and dairy along with assessing the levels of harmful inflammatory compounds in your body that have bene associated with dairy consumption.
- Dairy and milk do not have to be included in your diet to be healthy
- Dairy and milk contain important micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids
- It’s not necessary to get calcium from dairy products
- There is no evidence linking dairy or milk to strong bones in adults or kids
- Dairy may produce negative health effects in some
- Choose grass-fed, whole sources of dairy without anything added
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Bischoff-Ferrari, H., Dawson-Hughes, B., Baron, J. et. al. (2007) Calcium intake and risk of hip fracture in men and women: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies and randomized controlled trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 86(6):1780-1790.O
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