Dairy milk is very much a staple food in western diets. When we’re young, we’re taught in school and by parents how great milk is for building strong, healthy bones. However, in more recent years, the trend to cut out dairy foods and replace them with alternatives like almond milk or oat milk has gained momentum. We see this particularly among fad diets that promise quick results. These diets claim that dairy causes acne, inflammation, bloating and even make claims around heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Is there any truth to those claims? Do you need to avoid dairy milk to live a healthy life? We break down the evidence for you so you can decide for yourself.
Is milk bad for you?
One key argument that people make against dairy is that it is unnatural to consume milk as humans are the only species who drink it beyond infancy. However, this argument doesn’t really hold up because there are a lot of other foods in the human diet that isn’t consumed by other species either – we’re yet to see a bird baking a cupcake or meat pies! Our diet shouldn’t really be compared to what is normal for animals as we have very different nutrition requirements.
Other claims around dairy milk include linking consumption with risk of heart disease, obesity, certain cancers and acne. Current research tells us that there is not sufficient, convincing evidence to suggest that drinking dairy milk will increase somebody’s risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and certain cancers, as it is very difficult to assess the effect of one single food or nutrient in the diet. Instead, an overall healthy eating pattern that includes dairy milk is linked with a reduced risk of these diseases. In 2019, the Australian Heart Foundation even updated their position statement on dairy milk in the diet, recommending that dairy foods could be consumed as part of an overall healthy eating pattern as there is not enough evidence to recommend avoiding dairy for heart health. For people with elevated cholesterol or existing coronary heart disease, however, dairy can still be consumed in the diet but it’s recommended they choose low-fat dairy milk and other dairy products.
When it comes to acne, there is some evidence to suggest that dairy milk consumption could be linked to acne in some people, however, this is not the case for every person with acne. In these circumstances, an individualised approach is recommended.
When is milk bad for you? If you have a dairy allergy then dairy milk is not a healthy option for your body, and instead a dairy alternative is healthier. If you are lactose intolerant, dairy milk can still be consumed in small amounts by most people before symptoms occur, or choosing lactose-free dairy milk is a suitable replacement and provides the same nutritional value as regular dairy milk.
What are the benefits of drinking milk?
Dairy milk does have plenty of health benefits when consumed as part of an overall healthy diet. Dairy milk is rich in protein, which is involved in keeping muscles strong and helping muscle repair post-exercise. Protein also aids satiety, keeping us feeling fuller for longer. This makes dairy milk a healthy component of the diet even if your goal is weight management.
Dairy milk also provides essential micronutrients including calcium, which has an essential role in bone health. Poor intake of calcium in the diet over time can lead to calcium being taken from bones to be used for other body functions, which can lead to bones becoming weak and brittle, prone to breakage, and increases the risk of developing osteoporosis. When dairy milk is swapped out for other milk like soy or almond milk, we recommend checking if the calcium content is comparable to dairy milk as this is usually the key source of calcium in most people’s diets.
Dairy milk also provides other key nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous and carbohydrates. There’s a reason why milk is often consumed by athletes after sport! Nutrients that are essential for recovery, particularly the electrolytes sodium, potassium and magnesium, as well as the protein and carbohydrate content are packaged up nicely into one drink that supports the recovery process post-exercise.
What is the healthiest milk?
Dairy milk is our main source of calcium in the diet so when comparing other milk, such as soy, almond, oat milk and more, the first nutrient to look at is the calcium content. In general, a 250ml serve of dairy milk provides around 300mg of calcium, so it is ideal to find an alternative that provides a similar amount. For reference, the recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium for adult men and women is 1000mg/day, and increases to 1300mg/day for women 50 years and older, and men 70 years and older.
The bottom line is that dairy milk is a highly nutritious food and can form part of a healthy diet to support long-term health. However, if you have a dairy milk allergy, intolerance, or for other reasons choose not to consume dairy milk, alternative options can also be a healthy part of the diet too as long as nutrient needs are still being met.