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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
- Organic Milk vs. Regular Milk: Does It Really Matter?
- Lactose Intolerance: It’s Different Than Having a Milk Allergy
- Is Milk Really Good For You?
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This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.