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  • Alan Frischer, MD, MPH

Milk

I love milk. For as long as I can remember, cow’s milk has been a daily part of my diet. Through the years, more and more milk alternatives have become available, and yet here I am, still drinking the same old thing. It helps that I have no problem with lactose intolerance, as so many do. (Nearly 50% of people in this country are felt to be lactose intolerant.) A number of sources have suggested that milk is not good for me. Should I rethink my milk habit?


While consumption of cow’s milk has been declining gradually over the past few decades, it remains by far the most popular form of milk in the United States. Recent statistics show that over three billion gallons of cow's milk are consumed annually, as compared to roughly 340 million gallons of plant-based alternative milk.


Some researchers have recommended that children over the age of two and adults should not drink cow’s milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association strongly disagree. Cow’s milk and other dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, and calcium (together with vitamin D) is proven to be critical for good bone health. Most of the calcium consumed by adults and by children comes from milk and other dairy products. Children who do not drink milk show lower height, body weight and bone mineral content when compared with those who do. Milk also contains phosphorus, which increases calcium retention; protein, which plays a key role in muscle growth and immune function; and other vitamins and minerals. (Other great sources of calcium include seeds, some fish, beans and lentils, some nuts, and leafy green vegetables.)


What are the downsides of drinking milk?

  • Cow’s milk is not recommended for a baby’s first year, due to possible intestinal bleeding and anemia. Research does not show any significant long-term impact.

  • About 2% of children are allergic to the protein in cow’s milk. For them, milk products may cause hives, diarrhea, wheezing, or other allergy symptoms.

  • Some children and many adults are lactose intolerant, meaning that they cannot digest the sugar found in milk. Consuming dairy products results in bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Taking a lactase supplement along with the dairy replaces the missing enzyme. Those with mild lactose intolerance can often consume limited amounts without experiencing symptoms, so most people with lactose intolerance need not completely avoid dairy products.


One of the more unusual but effective claims against milk is that it contains pus. There is NO pus in milk. There are, however, white blood cells, which are the body’s infection fighters. The level of white blood cells rises when there is an infection, but they are always present, in cow milk as well as in human milk. White blood cell levels are monitored by dairy farmers and by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).


Some within the scientific community feel that cow’s milk is not meant for humans, and that it leads to inflammation and can exacerbate arthritis. They point out that we in the United States consume huge amounts of dairy, yet still have very high rates of osteoporosis. Note that there are many different factors responsible for osteoporosis, in addition to the amount of milk consumed.


For those at high risk of heart disease or who have high cholesterol levels, low-fat or non-fat milk are safe choices. They contain the same nutrition without the same fats. However, recent studies show that regularly consuming even full-fat milk and other dairy products does not increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, it may have a protective effect.


My conclusion? The preponderance of evidence overwhelmingly indicates that milk from cows is safe and beneficial. I will continue to drink my daily glass of milk. However, if because of lactose intolerance or other reasons, you do not consume dairy, I urge you to be very deliberate in finding replacements for calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Fortunately, there are now shelves full of dairy alternatives.

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