You hear it all the time—got milk?
For over twenty years the “Got Milk” campaign contributed to the increase in milk consumption among Americans. This was great for the country’s dairy farmers who were experiencing declining milk sales, but how much this actually improved Americans’ health is less clear. It can be difficult in today’s consumer landscape to discern between what is good for us versus what is just good for business, and dairy is no exception. The conversation around milk and all dairy products is changing, and scientists now question whether it is as beneficial as we once believed. Canada just released their latest dietary guidelines and have eliminated dairy as a separate food group altogether, combining it instead with other protein sources like meat and nuts and encouraging water consumption over milk consumption.
In America, it is easy to consume dairy at every meal. It adds certain flavors and textures to our food that make all sorts of meals possible— from buttermilk that makes pancakes fluffy to the creaminess of mac and cheese. Dairy can be incredibly satisfying, and yet recent research indicates that the recommendations we have long heard—that children and adults should consume it for overall health, and particularly bone health- may in fact be over-stated.
History of Drinking Milk and Other Dairy Consumption
Many different animals produce milk for the optimal growth and development of their offspring. For this reason, milk is laden with proteins and fats which provide young animals with essential nutrients and which help them to put on weight.
Interestingly, humans are the only species that continue to drink milk after infancy due to our ability to digest the milk sugar lactose as adults. We developed this genetic advantage thousands of years ago when European farming communities began supplementing their diet with dairy products from cows, goats, sheep, and other animals. Over time, dairy became central to many culinary traditions around the world - France being perhaps the most famous with its 1000 different varieties of cheese.
The popularity of dairy has continued to grow and has brought with it significant changes to both the production and quality of dairy. The majority of dairy cows today are housed in large factory farms instead of on pasturelands, and subsist on a diet corn and grain instead of grass. Another major difference is the use of hormones and antibiotics in today’s farming practices. Hormones help increase milk production and antibiotics stave off diseases that thrive in the cramped factory conditions, yet these additives may pose risks to our health, the extent of which we are only starting to uncover.
What are the Health Benefits of Dairy Products?
As noted above, dairy is generally accepted as part of a healthy diet, with government guidelines suggesting that children and adults consume milk daily. Dairy is touted as being an excellent source of calcium and necessary for teeth and bone health, but what does the science say?
Calcium: While dairy is a good source of calcium, newer research shows that the association between dairy consumption and optimal bone health is not as straightforward as was once believed. In the United States where calcium consumption is high, rates of osteoporosis and fractures are higher than in countries where calcium consumption is lower. Scientists have coined this the “calcium paradox” and posit that the adverse effect of the animal proteins in dairy products may outweigh the benefits conferred by the calcium.
Saturated Fat: Dairy contains saturated fats, our understanding of which has been evolving in recent years. Saturated fat was thought to be linked to an increase risk for heart disease, but newer research shows that there is insufficient evidence to support this claim. We do know that certain typse of saturated fat can raise overall cholesterol and for this reason should be consumed in moderation. We also know that replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fats like those found in olive oil and some polyunsaturated fats may reduce your risk for heart disease. If you are limiting your saturated fat intake, one thing to be cautious of is low fat dairy products which often contain high amounts of sugar (remember, fat equals flavor).
Lactose: Lactose intolerance is also becoming a common concern for many people. Individuals with this condition experience digestive discomfort after consuming dairy products, and while there are many good lactose free products on the market, many others are heavily processed or contain less healthy dairy - alternatives like hydrogenated oils (think margarin).
Current Practices with Dairy Alternative Options for Dairy-Free Diets
All of this is not to say that you should eliminate dairy entirely from your diet. Research has shown, in fact, that butters and cheeses can have health benefits as well when eaten in moderation. For example, butter intake is linked with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. If you do choose to eat dairy, look for grass-fed dairy products which bring more health benefits than conventional dairy products. If you avoid cow milk products because of digestive or other health problems associated with the proteins in milk, you might consider goat’s milk. Goat’s milk is not only high in calcium, but it has different proteins that are less likely to contribute to the gut problems, allergies, acne, or eczema often caused by cow’s milk. Goat’s milk also has higher levels of medium-chain triglycerides, which are good for you because they boost brain functioning and metabolism. Vitamin A in the goat’s milk is also good for your skin.
In terms of calcium, while dairy products are a good source, there are also plenty of alternatives that not only contain more calcium, but also confer additional health benefits. For example, sardines are an excellent source of calcium as well as Omega-3 Fatty acids; arugula offers calcium along with vitamins A, K, and C; and tahini provides a good source of calcium and protein.
Of course, today many people choose to eliminate dairy products from their diet for moral and ethical reasons. If you practice veganism and are looking for dairy substitutes, try to steer clear of products that contain large amounts of sugar and preservatives, and choose whole foods over those that are heavily processed. If you are concerned about losing some of the nutrient benefits that dairy products do have to offer, you can incorporate other foods and supplements into your diet to replace those found in dairy products.
Dairy might be the most difficult food category to wrestle with because it seems to confer both risks and benefits. More research is needed to fully understand the role it might play in a healthy diet. Ultimately, research can give us new insights about our food, and while sometimes these insights might run counter to what we have always believed, it is important to take them into consideration.
Everyone has their own unique physical and mental health needs at the end of the day. If you have specific health concerns, consider consulting with an integrative/functional medicine clinician or a dietitian.