If you grew up drinking milk, you might be surprised—and confused—by recent health headlines. The dairy products you consumed as a kid to build strong bones and muscles are now being called into question by some experts in the diet and nutrition community. Smart consumers and healthy eaters alike are wondering “Is milk bad for me?” In most cases, the answer is no.
Pros and Cons of Drinking Milk
Before you ditch milk from your diet, consider some of the health benefits of drinking your dairy.
- Milk provides important vitamins and minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
- Diets that include at least three cups of dairy per day can improve bone mass, according to the USDA.
- Drinking low fat or skim milk is a diet-friendly way to boost your protein intake.
- Single-serving milk containers are inexpensive and easy to find when you need a quick snack.
- An increased intake of dairy products (like milk) is associated with a reduced risk of certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes in adults.
So why would any health expert question the importance of milk in your diet? Like any food, there are drawbacks to including dairy foods—like milk— in your diet.
- Full fat dairy products, like cheese and full fat milk, are high in saturated fat.
- Milk can be easy to over-consume. A single portion is just eight ounces, but many milk glasses have enough room for almost twice that amount.
- About 30 million Americans are lactose intolerant and may experience gastrointestinal problems including nausea, bloating, or diarrhea after drinking milk.
- Some health experts caution against relying on dairy products for bone health. A recent Harvard health publication encouraged consumers to eat or drink their calcium from non-milk sources. “While calcium and dairy can lower the risk of osteoporosis and colon cancer, high intake can increase the risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer,” they say. They add that milk contains retinol (vitamin A), which can weaken bones if consumed in large amounts.
Doesn’t Milk Contain Sugar, Too?
Some consumers are also worried about the sugar in milk. Milk contains lactose, a form of sugar. But even though many health experts caution us to consume less sugar, they usually aren’t referring to sugar that occurs naturally in foods like the lactose in milk or the fructose in whole fruit. Instead, they are usually referring to added sugars—the kind you find in soft drinks and that is added to certain savory products like ketchup, some brands of peanut butter, and spaghetti sauce.
The lactose in milk has benefits, especially if you are an exerciser. “Think of lactose— the sugar found in milk— as the vehicle by which protein can travel to your muscles, helping you refuel faster than simply eating protein on its own,” says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN and Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute. “A glass of milk provides the optimal ratio of carbs and protein,” she says, “but the added benefit is that it counts toward helping you meet your fluid needs and rehydrate after a grueling workout.”
How to Include Milk in a Healthy Diet
If you enjoy the taste of milk, you can keep it in your diet in moderation to gain health benefits. According to the USDA, diets that provide at least three cups of dairy products per day can improve bone mass. The experts at Harvard suggest limiting dairy to one to two servings per day and getting calcium from products like bok choy and other leafy greens, beans or fortified soy milk.
If you exercise, you’ll gain benefits from drinking milk immediately after your workout. In fact, some studies have found that chocolate milk is better for your body than high priced post-workout supplements. It’s also less expensive and usually tastes better.
“Endurance athletes (those training longer than 60 minutes) should consider refueling with chocolate milk,” says London, “which provides 4 grams of carbohydrate to every 1 gram of protein, helping to replete glycogen stores faster. For regular exercisers (those who participate in 30-60 minutes of low-intensity exercise), I’d recommend a 2-gram carbohydrate to 1-gram protein ratio after exercise.” One cup of low-fat chocolate milk provides 140 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein.
Growth Hormones, Antibiotics, and Organic vs. Non-Organic
You’ve probably seen different brands of milk with different labels, like “milk from cows not treated with rBST” or “USDA organic.” But what do those labels mean?
- rBST is a growth hormone injected in some cows to stimulate milk production. Over the years, some studies have raised concerns about this hormone’s affect on humans. If you are concerned, look for milk with the “cows not treated with rBST” (also sometimes called rBGH) label.
- If the milk is USDA Organic, it means that the cow must not be given any antibiotics or growth hormones, and its feed must be 100% organic. Some people believe that ingesting animal products containing antibiotics is unhealthy and increases our antibiotic resistance.
Choosing what milk you buy is a personal choice, but if you usually opt for organic, hormone-free food like we do, look for the USDA Organic and rBST-free indicators. If you’re lactose intolerant, almond milk or other options may be better alternatives.