Milk, as the marketing ploy goes, does a body good. But does it, really?
Just like other foods and drinks before it, there is conflicting information about the effects of dairy milk on the body. Depending on who you ask or what study you read, milk can be good for you or bad for you, in much the same way that eggs, wine, and coffee can have varying effects on health. Milk is highly nutritious, some say, while others counter that it’s unnatural for humans to be drinking milk from another animal.
So, is milk bad for you or good for you? We break down the benefits of drinking milk as well as its potential negative effects so that you can make the best choice for your health.
Benefits of Drinking Milk
Though milk is normally associated with children as it helps them build strong bones and teeth, even adults can reap some of the benefits of dairy.
Milk is highly nutritious. There’s a reason that milk is the only thing we consume for the first few months of life—it’s filled with nutrients that are essential for growth. It’s a balanced source of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) and is notably a complete protein source—which means you get all nine essential amino acids—something most plant substitutes are not (soy is an exception).
There are also a number of important micronutrients in milk: Vitamins, A, D, and B12, phosphorus, potassium, niacin, riboflavin, magnesium, and of course, calcium, all of which play important roles when it comes to maintaining a healthy body.
While many milk substitutes are being heavily marketed these days, most non-dairy milks do not have the same macronutrient balance as dairy milk, nor do they have nearly as many nutrients, plus they may be sweetened with added sugars. When it comes to nutrition from milk, dairy still comes out on top.
Milk helps keep bones strong. Milk is an especially great source of calcium, with about 250 mg to 350 mg per cup. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for the average adult is about 1,000 mg; more for those over 50 to help curb osteoporosis, or the deterioration of bones. While there are other whole foods, like leafy vegetables, that contain calcium, you would have to consume a whole lot of them just to hit your daily calcium target. Having milk is an easy way to meet a quarter of your RDA. (Take note that this shouldn’t be an excuse to feast on ice cream every day—the nutrient composition of dairy products like ice cream and cheese varies greatly from plain dairy milk.)
The protein, vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium are all also important for maintaining bone health.
Milk may be good for your heart. There has been a debate about the fat content of milk and its potential health risks. But, surprisingly, a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that there was a link between those who consumed full-fat dairy and a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke, as opposed to an increased risk. Another report, presented at the 2018 Congress of the European Society of Cardiology, found no link between dairy consumption and heart disease, except in cases when nearly a liter of dairy was consumed daily.
Milk can be good for your skin. Cleopatra is said to have bathed in the stuff and while milk may soothe and soften skin, you don’t have to fill a tub with it to reap its beauty benefits. It may also give you better skin from the inside out: The Vitamin D content helps protect skin from sun damage while the protein can help skin retain elasticity.
The Downside of Dairy
The main argument against drinking dairy milk is that most adults, roughly 65% worldwide and 90% in East Asia, are estimated to be lactose intolerant. This means that they have difficulty digesting lactose, or the sugar found in milk, which leads to digestive issues like bloating, gas, stomach pains, nausea, or diarrhea when they consume dairy.
If you love the taste of dairy or the creaminess it gives your daily cup of coffee, then you can opt for a plant-based milk instead. However, you just have to remember that plant-based milk like almond and oat milk don’t have the same nutritional value as milk, so you have to make up for the nutrients from other whole foods.
Should You Drink Dairy?
So, is milk bad for you? The experts at Harvard Health Publishing conclude that dairy is neither hero nor villain. It does give you health benefits but if you suffer from lactose intolerance, there are other ways for you to get the nutrients that dairy milk offers. Whether you decide to include dairy milk in your diet or not, the important thing is to consume it in moderation and to make it just one part of a balanced diet of nutrient-rich whole foods.