The case against drinking dairy isn't as strong as you think -- here's why it's good for you

The INSIDER Summary:

  • Many people have switched to drinking milk substitutes instead of cow’s milk.
  • We spoke with two nutritionists who said that milk is natural, has vital nutrients, and that the case against it is often made by people who aren’t experts.
  • Unless you have dietary, cultural, or religious restrictions, there’s no reason to cut dairy.

In the last 40 years, milk consumption per capita has decreased by about a third, according to the USDA — it’s tough to find someone nowadays who hasn’t switched to some kind of dairy substitute, be it almond, soy, rice, or some other kind of “milk.”

So how did good old-fashioned cow’s milk get such a bad rap, and how much validity does that rap actually have?

We spoke with two nutritionists, Keith Ayoob and Meg O’Rourke, to find out the real story.

Full disclosure: Ayoob is the grandson of a dairy farmer and a participant in the Milk Processor Education Program.

Cow’s milk is one of the most nutrient-rich beverages out there.

Both O’Rourke and Ayoob say that milk has potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and protein. And while you can get these nutrients — separately — from other foods like salmon and kale, it’s hard to find a single source like milk that offers all four of them at once.

According to Ayoob, last year’s dietary guidelines highlighted four “nutrients of concern,” meaning that over 50% of the American population has a diet that’s deficient in those nutrients. They are calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fibre. Milk provides three of those nutrients (calcium, potassium, and vitamin D).

So when you’re drinking milk, you’re killing multiple birds with one stone.

The use of hormones in milk has gone way down in recent years, and the link between these hormones and cancer has never been scientifically proven.

Herd cowsSandra Mu/GettyDairy farmers have cut down on their use of hormones.

Dairy farmers used to give cows hormones in order to increase how much milk they produced. Some studies claimed there was a link between these hormones and cancer. And while both O’Rourke and Ayoob say that the use of these hormones has gone way, way down — they’re barely being used at all anymore — O’Rourke says that science-based evidence doesn’t support a connection between hormones and cancer.

Ayoob also says that what many people don’t realise is that there are hormones in most of the food we eat. Living beings, both plants and animals, all have hormones, but these only affect the being they’re found in.

When drinking milk, “[those hormones are] not going to work on you unless you have a tail, and hooves, and five stomachs.”

O’Rourke did however say that if she has a patient with a history of cancer, she might recommend they stay away from drinking milk, just to be on the safe side.

Emerging evidence suggests that the saturated fat in milk isn’t directly related to heart disease.

Buttercheeseslave / FlickrThe saturated fat in butter behaves differently than the saturated fat in milk.

Ayoob said that he was wary of the saturated fat in milk until attending a lecture on the topic. He says that saturated fat is not just one substance, but a whole group of fats that behaves differently depending on what food it’s in.

Ayoob gave the example of cheese and butter. Both come from milk and have the same kind of saturated fat. But the saturated fat in cheese is bound to protein; the saturated fat in butter is isolated. Ayoob says the protein in cheese causes the saturated fat to behave differently, more specifically the fat doesn’t seem to increase cholesterol (which can lead to heart disease) like the saturated fat in other foods — like butter — does.

So in simple terms, the saturated fat in milk isn’t as harmful as many make it sound.

The case against dairy is often made by celebrities and people who don’t have proper credentials.

Homemade Almond Milk in Mason JarsVivianna_love / FlickrWhat’s trendy isn’t always what’s healthiest.

O’Rourke and Ayoob advise being cautious about where you’re getting your nutrition information from, because many of those who tout the benefits of cutting out dairy don’t have the credentials to do so. Both say the switch to milk substitutes is trend that’s been exacerbated by our obsession with celebrity culture and social media.

“The food trends come and go. Milk has always been here, and they sort of take it for granted,” Ayoob said. “And keep in mind, bad mouthing a food gets headlines. If it bleeds, it leads. And a lot of what I see — and this is what really bugs me — a lot of what’s said about milk is just patently false.”

Milk substitutes are processed; milk is natural.

Bowl of AlmondsChristian Louw Pedersen / FlickrMilk substitutes, like almond milk, are processed.

Ayoob says that often the people promoting milk substitutes like soy, almond, and rice milk are all about non-processed and natural foods. Yet, these substitutes — in comparison to cow’s milk — are incredibly processed.

O’Rourke adds that she has no problem with beverages and foods that come from a natural source, and most of the people in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations didn’t either — and they were a lot healthier than we are.

“The incidence of obesity is steadily increasing. They’re predicting by 2030, 42% of Americans are going to be obese,” O’Rourke said. “We’re eating less dairy, we’re eating less gluten, so why is this all trending upward? When our parents were younger, or maybe your grandparents, they ate dairy, they ate real stuff, and there was no obesity epidemic.”

Not drinking cow’s milk could mean a rise in osteoporosis.

Old Woman Walking with CaneFranck Michel / FlickrWill drinking less milk mean more osteoporosis in the future?

The idea of milk building strong bones has been contested, but both Ayoob and O’Rourke think that milk does make a difference, and they worry that fewer milk drinkers now could mean more cases of osteoporosis later.

The bottom line: unless you’re lactose intolerant or have religious or cultural reasons to cut cow’s milk out of your diet, there’s really no reason to.

If you do decide to stop drinking milk, O’Rourke suggests talking to a nutritionist or doctor to see what nutrients you’ll be missing out on, and what foods you should be eating as an alternate source of those nutrients.

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