Is Milk Healthy?

Is milk healthy? It’s an excellent source of several nutrients, but some have concerns about how most milk is produced and processed.

is milk healthy?

Many milk naysayers are actually opposed to the way milk is produced and processed, rather than the milk itself.

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Is milk healthy? It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple. Milk is actually a controversial topic due to opinions that run the gamut from “milk is the best thing you can drink” to “milk is one of the worst drinks on the planet.”

First, let’s consider milk’s nutritional content, and then, let’s look at some factors that drive the debate.

Nutrition Facts

One cup (8 ounces) of whole milk provides 276 milligrams of calcium, 7.7 grams of protein, and 4.5 grams of saturated fat for 149 calories. It also contains 322 milligrams of potassium, 205 milligrams of phosphorus, 24 milligrams of magnesium, and 0.9 milligrams of zinc, 395 International Units (IU) of vitamin A. And, you’ll find trace amounts of six B vitamins, including folate and B12, in milk.

Powerful Nutrients

From a nutrition standpoint, milk is very healthy. The calcium it contains is essential for strong bones and teeth. Protein is also required for the process of bone formation, which is important to people of all ages, since your bones are in a constant process of breakdown and buildup. The protein in milk is considered a high-quality, complete protein, since it contains all nine essential amino acids that your body uses to build, maintain, and repair muscles and skin. These amino acids are needed for the production of hemoglobin, the substance in blood that carries oxygen to all of your organs and tissues, as well as antibodies, hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.

Your body uses potassium to help maintain the correct balance of fluid in cells and in your blood. Excessive sodium intake, which is very common among Americans, often causes a rise in blood pressure due to increased fluid, and getting adequate potassium can help reduce the amount of fluid—and the pressure—in your blood vessels. Potassium is also needed for healthy kidneys, muscles, and nerve function.

Magnesium plays an important role in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, and transporting calcium and potassium in and out of cells. It’s involved in regulating blood pressure and blood glucose, as well as bone formation.

Phosphorus is also involved in bone formation, and it helps repair damaged tissues and cells. Phosphorus helps your digestive system break down food and absorb nutrients, as well as aiding with the excretion of waste products.

Your body uses zinc to heal wounds, make enzymes and proteins, and keep your immune system strong.

Vitamin A is needed for healthy vision and proper communication between cells, and it’s involved in maintaining optimum function in your heart, lungs, and kidneys.

In short, milk is healthy, since the nutrients it provides are needed for hundreds of processes that are essential to health and well-being.

Is Milk Healthy If It Contains Saturated Fat?

Some people say you’re better off skipping milk because it contains saturated fat, a type of fat that has been linked with higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Whole milk is high in saturated fat—4.5 grams per 8-ounce serving, which is about 25 percent of the daily intake recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 and about one-third of the daily intake advised by the American Heart Association. That’s a big percentage of your daily saturated-fat budget to spend on one glass of milk. However, you can choose milk that’s lower in saturated fat and calories and still get most of the same nutrients.

Reduced-fat (2%) milk provides 293 milligrams of calcium, 8 grams of protein, and 3 grams of saturated fat for 122 calories. Low-fat (1%) milk contains 305 milligrams of calcium, 8.2 grams of protein, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat for 102 calories. Fat-free or skim milk provides 299 milligrams of calcium, 8.2 grams of protein, and 0.3 grams of saturated fat for 86 calories. In all three of these alternatives to whole milk, the amount of potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc, are slightly higher than in whole milk. However, the vitamin A content is lower in these forms of milk, and many of them contain added vitamin A.

Contaminants

Some people claim that it’s not the milk itself but its source that’s a problem. They say that milk from cows treated with growth hormones and antibiotics may contain those same chemicals, and that cows fed standard feed produce milk that may contain pesticides, herbicides, and environmental pollutants—basically, anything that is found in non-organic feed. Their solution: Choose organic milk, which is from cows that must spend at least 120 days per year outside grazing in organic pastures and are given feed grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified seeds. Cows that produce organic milk are not routinely given antibiotics or other drugs; however, if a cow develops an infection and is treated with an antibiotic, the cow’s milk is no longer considered organic.

Pasteurization

Some people claim that processed, pasteurized milk causes lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose, a natural sugar found in milk) and advise drinking raw, unpasteurized milk instead. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against consuming raw milk, since it may be contaminated with bacteria or other potentially harmful organisms, which are destroyed during the pasteurization process.

“Raw milk advocates claim that pasteurized milk causes lactose intolerance,” says John Sheehan, Director of FDA’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety. “This is simply not true. All milk, whether raw or pasteurized, contains lactose, and pasteurization does not change the concentration of lactose, nor does it convert lactose from one form into another.”

The Bottom Line

This is by no means an exhaustive summary of the arguments made for and against milk, but you can see from the topics addressed above that many milk naysayers are actually opposed to the way milk is produced and processed, rather than the milk itself.

The answer to the “Is milk healthy?” question is ultimately up to you. On one hand, milk is a source of many valuable nutrients, and you can limit your saturated fat intake by choosing reduced-fat, low-fat, or fat-free milk. Even if you’re lactose intolerant, you can choose milk and other milk products that are lactose-free, or you can take a lactase supplement so your body has the enzyme it needs to digest lactose. On the other hand, if you want to follow a dairy-free diet, you can do so without harming your health; just make sure you consume other foods and beverages that provide the nutrients found in milk.


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This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated. 

Comments
  • Maybe the homogenization process in whole milk is what causes the change to a bad fat, and not the cream itself.

    Reply
  • If your ancestors come from Northern European stock, you will enjoy drinking milk as you are able to digest it well, and you will benefit from the nutritional content. However, if your ancestry is African, Asian, Native American Indian, or Hispanic (maybe); then milk would not be your choice of beverage and you might even be lactose intolerant. Many school children suffer through lunches because milk is routinely offered due to the program set up by the USDA to include milk in the public school school lunch program. This was done back in the 1930’s so as to guarantee farmers a solid way to sell their milk. Also, if you can get children in the habit of drinking milk, then you have customers for life. And then there is the issue of raw milk. Some people prefer to drink raw milk because they feel it is healthier to do so. Currently, there are multiple regulations in place on the federal, state, and local levels that almost eliminates the ability of the average person to easily obtain raw milk. Many of these regulations go back to a time when brewers kept a herd of cows on the side and sold milk that was processed in unsanitary conditions. Of course, times have changed and farmers now follow strict practices to maintain the high quality of the milk but these regulations are still in place. Many people have to “buy” a share of a cow just to obtain their weekly gallon of raw milk. So these are some major issues. Some people like to drink milk and others prefer not to (or can’t) drink it. Those who do like milk may prefer not to have it pasteurized or homogenized and have to go to great lengths to get raw milk.

    Reply
  • I heard Dr. John Mcdougall say years ago that cows’ milk is a cause of Type 1 Diabetes for those with this sensitivity. Anything on that?

    Reply
  • Milk is no worse than any other food. If not handled properly, yes it can cause problems, but no worse than many other foods, chicken for example. This is no reason to require pasteurization which kills many of the nutrients in milk. This horrible requirement was simply to increase the shelf life of milk. I grew up in a rural area drinking raw milk all my life and everybody I knew did the same and I NEVER heard of ANYBODY getting sick from milk. High heat destroys nutrients in many foods and milk is no exception.

    Reply
  • Milk is healthy for babies of the species of mammals the milk comes from. Milk is naturally full of (natural) growth hormones which stimulate the rapid growth of the newborn.
    Many autoimmune doctors think that milk other than mother’s milk for newborns is inflammatory.

    Reply
  • … the growth stimulation of natural hormones contained in milk also applies to adults drinking milk.

    Reply
  • I’m surprised to not see listed in this discussion the decided “con” to milk of the terrible abuse and slaughter of animals in the process of making milk. First, the artificial impregnation of female cows, whose lives are drained out prematurely into those cartons of milk then thrown into the slaughter, the immediate removal of male calves who are either slaughtered at birth or put into veal crates, and the recurring process of it, year after year, decade over decade. 70-80 billion animals abused and slaughtered each year for the sake of our bellies, our reluctance to endure the inconvenience of acclimating our palates to plant-based alternatives that can provide these nutrients.

    Reply
  • This entire article appears to address only milk from cows. There are other alternatives.

    Reply
  • A very good article on the benefits of milk. It is my opinion that milk is very healthy……mostly for babies. Just look in nature. Calves get weaned by mother cow. The same is true for all animals…..they are weaned around age 1 or so. So drinking milk daily for anyone other than BABIES is open for debate.
    I happen to be “allergic” to milk and most dairy. Not a serious allergy, but causes lots of subtle problems….like nasal stuffiness, indigestion, and lots of mucus production. I stopped all dairy about 3 months ago and all these problems disappeared. I am age 78 and in very good health…..and now I feel so much better and lost some pounds. My big choice was all types of cheese, mostly for snacking. I substituted red kidney beans….very healthy with lots of fiber. So instead of putting on FAT, I am getting loaded up on PROTEIN. Getting stronger by the day. So that is my opinion on MILK, CHEESE, AND DAIRY!!!

    Reply

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