milk: does it do the body good?

I get a lot of questions from clients and others about dairy and whether or not we should be eating it. Most of us have been raised our entire life to believe that dairy is not only good for us, but essential for good health.

The dairy industry has a long history of successfully marketing this idea. Since 1943, milk and dairy has had its own food group and has been promoted as a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet, even though all of the nutrients available in dairy products are also available to us in other whole foods. (There is a lot of history and politics that goes into why dairy has always figured so prominently in our government's dietary recommendations -- and I won't go into all the in's and out's here, but I will link to a book on the subject in case you are interested...)

There are a lot of different aspects of milk & dairy products that we could examine. The purpose of today’s blog post is simply to assert that, while dairy can play a part in a healthy diet for many people, (1) there are many people who should, or may choose to, avoid dairy, and (2) it is possible to have a complete, healthy, balanced diet without including dairy.

The government has been providing recommendations on what to eat for well over 100 years.
The government started recommending certain foods more than 100 years ago.

What’s in Milk?

The main nutrients in milk as promoted by the National Dairy Council include: protein, calcium, B vitamins, phosphorus, and vitamins D & A. Protein, calcium, B vitamins, and phosphorus all occur naturally in milk and dairy products. Conventional, pasteurized milk is fortified with vitamin D in order to increase calcium absorption. Vitamin A occurs naturally in milkfat, but since many milk products are low- or no-fat, vitamin A is added back into the milk after it is processed to replace this loss.

For some people, milk can be a great source of these nutrients, however, all of these nutrients are readily available from other food sources:

Protein — meat, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tempeh and more.

Vitamin B12 — beef liver (okay, maybe not your favorite source!), sardines, mackerel, lamb, salmon, grass-fed beef, eggs, and nutritional yeast (1 tbsp has 40% DV). (B12 is the one nutrient that vegans need to get either through fortified foods like almond milk or cereal or through supplementation. Other sources have not proven adequate.)

Riboflavin (B2) - beef liver, mushrooms, spinach, almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, salmon, eggs

Niacin (B3) — beef, fish, poultry, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, yeast, eggs, rice, wheat, nuts & seeds, potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, legumes, soybeans

Phosphorus — meat, poultry, fish, nuts, and beans, sunflower seeds, almonds, brown rice, potatoes, broccoli, eggs

Pantothenic Acid (B5) — chicken liver, sunflower seeds, avocados, portobello mushrooms, salmon, lentils, corn, sun-dried tomatoes, eggs, cauliflower

Vitamin D — The best source of vitamin D is sunshine. It is also found in fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon, fortified cereals, beef liver, and egg yolks. Check with your doctor on this — many of us need to supplement due to genetics, lack of time outdoors, and the use of sunscreen!

Vitamin A — Liver, cod liver oil, fatty fish. Your body also produces vitamin A from carotenoids found in plants like sweet potatoes, winter squash, kale, collards, carrots, and more.

Calcium — The star of the milk show is usually touted as calcium. All of us know that “milk builds strong bones.” It is true that we need calcium for optimal health, but calcium is also found in leafy greens like spinach, kale, collards, broccoli, white beans, canned salmon, almonds, oranges, sesame seeds, seaweed — and, in fact, research shows that these foods are a more optimal way to get our calcium than milk.

Studies, such as a the Harvard Nurses Study (HNS), which followed 75,000+ women for 12 years, found that milk consumption did little to reduce the risk of bone fracture (an indication of bone health). In fact, a person's risk of fracture INCREASED with dairy consumption. While bone health is a much more complicated than just calcium intake, it shows that consuming dairy does not necessarily correlate with adequate calcium absorption and bone health.

One reason for this is that only 30% of the calcium from dairy is readily absorbed by the digestive tract, compared to 40-60% of the calcium from vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale. (The phosphorous in dairy, while good for us, actually inhibits the calcium absorption.) In the HNS, ONE serving of green, leafy vegetables cut the risk of hip fracture in half! So it may be beneficial for us to get our calcium from other sources in addition to dairy products.

Tune into your own body to see if milk and dairy really are the right fit for you.
Tune into your own body to see if milk and dairy really are the right fit for you.

But why choose not to get these nutrients from milk?

  1. As we talked about above, calcium may be better absorbed from other sources.
  2. Many people lack the enzyme, lactase, which breaks down the sugar (lactose) in milk. They can develop digestive distress and other symptoms when they drink milk.
  3. Many people who are lactose intolerant can still eat cheese because the lactose is eaten up by the good bacteria used in the process of making cheese. Sometimes taking lactase as a supplement will decrease these symptoms.
  4. Other people are sensitive or allergic to the proteins (casein and whey) in milk and other dairy products (often found individually in protein powder and other processed foods). An “true" allergic reaction can cause a range of symptoms from rashes & hives to trouble breathing & loss of consciousness. Others, like myself, do not have a true milk allergy but are “sensitive” to or “intolerant” of the proteins in dairy. They may experience symptoms such as sinus congestion, headache, achy joints, brain fog, acid reflux, constipation, bloating, gas, and fatigue when they consume dairy. You can determine if you have this type of sensitivity by eliminating dairy from your diet for a period of time, observing if your symptoms clear up, and adding dairy back in to see if they return. Intolerance is not “life-threatening,” but can be extremely uncomfortable and debilitating.
  5. You may want to avoid dairy for ethical reasons. Most of our dairy comes from our highly industrialized food system. Many dairy cows are kept in unsanitary, inhumane conditions and fed a diet of grain, rather than their natural diet of eating grass in a pasture. This diet decreases such nutrients as beta-carotene, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) naturally found in milk, and can cause the animals to get sick. The antibiotics and other toxins consumed by the cows are passed on to the consumer through the milk. During the pasteurization process intended to kill harmful bacteria, naturally occurring enzymes and probiotics that help humans digest cow’s milk are also killed by the high heat.
    (There is much debate in the medical and larger community about the benefits and challenges of raw milk versus pasteurized milk, as well as organic, pasture-raised milk versus conventional milk — topics beyond the scope of this blog post — my objective here is to simply raise awareness that there are a number of reasons beyond allergy and intolerance that one may choose not to consume dairy products.)
  6. A number of studies indicate that dairy consumption may increase your risk of certain types of cancer. See references below for just a few examples.
It's good to laugh at ourselves! (You may want to consider the condition of the animals providing our food when making food choices.)
Laugh a little -- and consider the condition of the cows!

What do I do now?

  • Recognize that it is entirely possible to have a healthy, balanced diet without consuming dairy products.
  • Bring in the nutrients in dairy products from a wide variety of foods, rather than simply relying dairy.
  • Experiment with whether or not dairy products feel the best in your individual body. Try taking out dairy for several days or weeks and notice what shifts for you in diet.
  • If you choose to continue consuming dairy, experiment with organic, pasture-raised dairy products, and consider looking into raw and/or probiotic forms of dairy that may be more easily digested in your body.

Through the process of slowing down and tuning in, you can start to become aware of which foods are the most nourishing, healing, and health-promoting for you. You can be the best expert in your own health!

References & Resources:

Food as Medicine Everyday, 2016, Julie Briley ND & Courtney Jackson ND

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (California Studies in Food and Culture), 2013, Marion Nestle

Feskanich D, Willet WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA, “Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study.” Am J Public Health. 1997; 87:992-7.

World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. “Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective.” Washington DC: AICR, 2007.

Heaney RP, Weaver CM. “Calcium absorption from kale.”Am J Clin Nutr. 1990;51:656-657.

Weaver CM, Plawecki KL. “Dietary calcium: adequacy of a vegetarian diet.” Am J Clin Nutr. 1994;59(suppl):1238S-41S.

What foods are high in niacin?

What every vegan should know about vitamin B12

Foods high in phosphorus

Foods with calcium and vitamin D

Milk's 9 essential nutrients -- National Dairy Council

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