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Is Milk Bad for You?

Are dairy products good for you? Depends on who you ask! Here’s my two cents’ worth.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
October 15, 2008
Episode #013

In today’s article, I’m going to tackle the great dairy dilemma: Are dairy products good for you or not?

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Is Milk Bad for You?

Daniel writes:

I've heard a great deal of contrary opinions about milk. Is it good for you? Is it bad for you?  Would it only be good for you if you were a cow? Could you put this debate to rest for me? 

Well, Daniel, I seriously doubt that I’ll be able to put this debate to rest in the next five minutes. But I’ll try to sort through some of the main arguments for and against eating dairy products.

One of the arguments I’ve heard against eating dairy products is that it is unnatural. We humans are, by and large, the only animals to drink the milk of other species and to drink milk at all past infancy. To some, this seems like a perversion of our nature. Others feel strongly that consuming dairy products is unfair to cows or that keeping cows is an irresponsible use of land and other resources.

Now, I actually do have some opinions on these issues but I’m afraid you’ll have to invite me to a cocktail party to find out what they are. For the purposes of this podcast, I think I’d better try to stick to the nutritional issues. They’re thorny enough.

Here are a few things dairy has going for it, nutritionally:

  1. It’s a good source of high-quality protein. Now, most Americans get more than enough protein in their diet. But for those who choose not to eat meat, it can be an important protein source. It’s also a relatively inexpensive source of animal protein, which can be significant for those who are feeding families on tight budgets.

  2. Dairy products are rich in calcium. Most Americans do not get the recommended amount of calcium and health experts are very concerned with the future health of our collective skeleton. Promoting milk consumption is one way to try to reduce the incidence of osteoporosis. Although you can get calcium from other foods, like broccoli and leafy greens, it’s often not as bio-available as the calcium you get in milk. (Plus, most of us don’t eat nearly enough vegetables to meet our calcium requirements!)

  3. Dairy products are also a major source of vitamin D in the American diet. That’s ironic because dairy products contain no vitamin D naturally. In fact, there aren’t a lot of foods that do. And because the government is very concerned about making sure that we get enough, they have mandated that milk and other dairy products be fortified with D. However, many brands of soy milk and other non-dairy alternatives are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

     

  4. There have been some studies, many of them funded by the dairy industry, suggesting that Americans who eat more dairy products tend to be thinner than those who eat less—and much has been made of this by the dairy industry. On the other hand, there are cultures where people eat little or no dairy and are lots thinner and healthier than us, so I tend not to think that dairy products are some sort of magic bullet for weight loss. 

Let’s look at the nutritional cons of dairy foods:

  1. Dairy foods can be high in fat and, therefore, calories. Low-fat dairy foods, such as skim milk and low-fat cottage cheese, have had most of the fat skimmed off and they can still be good choices for calorie counters. But all the good stuff, like cheese, ice cream, and butter, can be diet-busters.

  2. In higher fat dairy products, most of the fat is saturated fat. Diets high in saturated fats can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease.

  3. Dairy products may contain hormones from the cows.

  4. Dairy products contain lactose, a type of milk-sugar that many people have difficulty digesting because they lack the digestive enzyme lactase. If you can’t digest lactose, eating dairy products can give you a rumbley tummy or worse. Lactose intolerance affects between ten and twenty percent of the population. You are much more likely to be lactose intolerant if you are of African, Asian, or Native American heritage. Lactose-reduced dairy products or lactase tablets can allow lactose intolerant people to eat dairy with fewer difficulties.

  5. Although cow’s milk allergies are fairly rare in adults, many babies and small children are allergic to milk, and experience symptoms including ear infections, skin rashes, and digestive problems. Avoiding dairy products can alleviate symptoms.

The Bottom Line? Dairy Is Not Essential

So, where does this leave us? Frankly, I can’t make a case for dairy being essential to a healthy diet. I think the fact that dairy products are considered as a separate food group instead of being lumped together with other animal products has less to do with their special nutritional advantages and more to do with the fact that the dairy lobby has spent a lot of money to influence public health and nutrition policy.

 

There are plenty of other ways to get protein, calcium, and vitamin D than in milk.
 
There are plenty of other ways to get protein, calcium, and vitamin D. So, Daniel, if you don’t care for dairy or you feel that the cons outweigh the pros, I see no reason for you to eat it as long as you have your nutritional bases covered.

 

But I’m not ready to insist that everyone swear off dairy, either. If you like dairy products, and you tolerate them, I think that you can enjoy them in good health, as long as you consume them in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

If you have a nutrition question or a cocktail party invitation for me, send an email to  nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com.  I am also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for reading. I hope you have a great day. Eat something good for me!

Milk image courtesy of Shutterstock

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