Throughout history, milk has commonly been regarded as a vital part of a balanced diet. When a baby is born, breast milk is the best form of nutrition; this no one can disagree with (Read here on black market breast milk). All mammals nurse their young, and breast milk is so beneficial in many ways for a newborn. After a year or so, this is usually substituted by cow’s milk or milk from other animals. Humans are the only species who continue to drink milk after being weaned.
Milk that is consumed mostly comes from cows, sheep and goats. Even cow’s milk is made in many varieties including flavored, lactose-free, milk with added omega-3, hormone-free, organic and reduced/low fat milk (Read here on more about ill-effects of low fat milk). Whether milk is actually a healthy choice depends on the individual and type of milk being consumed. Some milk is high in protein, low in added sugar and free of unnecessary additives, but there is also flavored milk that has just as much sugar as a can of soda. Flavored milk available in the market has loads of sugar, syrups, artificial sweeteners, binders and unrecognizable ingredients.
Milk has many number of nutrients including Calcium, Choline, Potassium and Vitamin D, each of which is important for bone and brain health, heart health, building muscles and so on. Besides, it seems to be of no benefit to or even harmful to many people who are allergic or intolerant to it.
For someone with a milk allergy, any kind of milk would be off limits where there is an abnormal immunologic reaction in which the body’s immune system produces an allergic antibody, called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody, which results in allergy symptoms such as wheezing, diarrhea or vomiting. Those with an actual milk allergy must strictly avoid milk and dairy in any form. Symptoms of a milk allergy can include asthma, eczema, gastrointestinal distress, as well as bleeding, pneumonia, and even anaphylaxis (shock).
Lactose intolerant individuals may be able to tolerate lactose-free milk depending on their level of intolerance. They may experience bloating, flatulence or diarrhea when consuming milk and milk products. Drinking lactose-free milk, which has added enzymes to help with lactose digestion, may ease or eliminate these symptoms. Some people have sensitivity to the Casein (a type of protein) in milk. This sensitivity can trigger inflammation throughout the body, which may produce symptoms such as sinus congestion, acne flares, skin rash and migraines.
Consuming too much potassium or phosphorus, both of which are high in milk, can be harmful to those whose kidneys are not fully functional. If your kidneys are unable to remove excess potassium or phosphorus from the blood, it could be fatal.
Vegans avoiding animal products would not consume milk at all and would likely opt for a milk alternative such as soy or almond milk. Some people choose not to consume dairy in order to follow a vegan diet, which means avoiding any food that contains products from an animal, including milk, cheese, eggs and honey. Others may cut dairy out of their diet as treatment for acne.
Media has propelled the notion that milk is a main source of nutrition. The dairy industry intensively promotes to consume milk, and it being the richest source of Calcium and Vitamin D, which are much needed for bone and teeth development. But there is not a lot of evidence supporting this.
Nowadays more evidence is surfacing that milk consumption may not only be unhelpful, it might also be detrimental. The Journal of Bone and Mineral Research published a meta-analysis examining whether milk consumption might protect against hip fracture in middle-aged and older adults; and the study could find no association between drinking milk and lower rates of fractures.
More recent research confirms these findings. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics this year followed almost 100,000 men and women for more than two decades and they were asked to report on their milk consumption as teenagers, and then they were followed to see if that was associated with a reduced chance of hip fractures later in life. The results concluded that there was no such association. Another recent study in the BMJ followed thousands of men and women in Sweden age 39 and older and had similar results. Even studies that examine the nutrients in milk, trying to look for protective effects, often come up short.
Also Calcium supplements are not of significant help because the extra Calcium doesn’t help reduce the rate of fractures and researchers were concerned that it may have increased the risk of hip fractures. In the US, milk is often fortified with Vitamin D. It is true that Vitamin D is necessary for Calcium absorption and for bone health, but that doesn’t mean that most people need to consume more.
A meta-analysis published this year in The Lancet examined the effect of vitamin D supplementation on bone mineral density in middle-aged and older adults. It found that, for the most part, consuming extra vitamin D did not improve the bones of the spine, hip or forearm. Less clinical improvement in bone density is seen. On the whole, Vitamin D had no effect on overall total body bone mineral density. This doesn’t mean that people with actual deficiencies shouldn’t be treated with supplementation. They absolutely should!
In addition, milk is not a low-calorie beverage. Even if people drink non-fat milk, three cups a day can mean an additional 250 calories consumed. Low-fat or whole milk has even more calories. Even though it has protein, people acknowledge that they get along just fine without milk, and many seek out milk substitutes. Almost everything is perfectly good in moderation, milk included. There’s nothing wrong with a periodic glass because you like it. But there’s very little evidence that most adults need it. There’s also very little evidence that it’s doing them much good.
If you decide that consuming milk is right for you, what kind should you choose?
Recent studies from the United Kingdom show that organic milk from pasture-raised cattle has higher rates of beneficial fatty acids than conventional dairy. Conventionally raised dairy cattle (most of the milk available is from cattle that are considered conventionally raised/non-organic) are fed primarily grain and often have limited access to roam and graze. If the cows have access to healthier food, you also get the benefit when you consume products from that cow (meat, cheese, milk, etc.).
So the answer to whether milk is good or bad for health is not definite and varies depending on the person and their specific dietary needs. Maintaining proper nutrition is a personalized undertaking. It is always better to consult a registered dietician for questions about if dairy products are a good choice for you!