Since childhood milk has been incorporated in our diets as a holy grail beverage for health. By definition, it’s a nutrient-rich fluid that female mammals produce to feed their young. The most commonly consumed types come from cows, sheep and goats.
Milk consumption is a hotly debated topic in the nutrition world, so you might wonder if it’s healthy or harmful.
Health Benefits of Milk
Milk has long been seen as a healthy drink, because it is high in a range of nutrients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for 2015 to 2020 suggest that Americans should consume “Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages.”
People who have a diet rich in milk and milk products can reduce the risk of low bone mass throughout the life cycle. Foods in the milk group provide vital nutrients, including calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein.
However, they also recommend consuming fewer than 10 percent of calories each day from saturated fats, citing butter and whole milk as examples of foods high in saturated fat.
Milk and Bone Health
Milk is good for the bones because it offers a rich source of calcium, a mineral essential for healthy bones and teeth. Cow’s milk is fortified with vitamin D, which also benefits bone health. Calcium and vitamin D help prevent osteoporosis.
Cow’s milk is designed to help baby cows grow fast, so it makes sense that humans who drink cow’s milk can also bulk up quickly. Cow’s milk is a rich source of high-quality protein, containing all of the essential amino acids.
Other ways to improve bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis include regular physical activity and strength training, avoiding smoking and eating a healthy diet that is low in sodium and high in potassium. Most of the body’s vitamin D is synthesized by the body on exposure to sunlight, so spending time outdoors is also important.
Some studies have concluded that milk consumption does not improve bone integrity in children.12
A seven-year study that tracked the diets and physical activity of adolescent girls, indicated that dairy products and calcium did not prevent stress fractures. In spite of this, milk and milk products are still considered beneficial for bone development in children.
Milk and Heart Health
Cow’s milk is a source of potassium, which can enhance vasodilation and reduce blood pressure. Increasing potassium intake and decreasing sodium can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a study led by Dr. Mark Houston, director of the Hypertension Institute at St. Thomas Hospital in Tennessee.
The study showed that those who consumed 4069 mg of potassium per day had a 49 percent lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease compared with those who consumed around 1000 mg per day.
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According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, fewer than 2 percent of US adults meet the daily 4700 mg recommendation.
Potassium-rich foods include cow’s milk, oranges, tomatoes, lima beans, spinach, bananas, prunes, and yogurt. A dramatic increase in potassium intake can have risks however, including heart problems, so any changes in diet or use of supplements must be discussed first with a physician.
Cow’s milk also contains a high amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, which have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Milk and Cancer
Vitamin D might play a role in cell growth regulation and cancer protection. Research shows that there is a higher risk of dying from colorectal cancer in geographic locations that receive the least amount of sunlight. Milk, too, contains vitamin D that can offer similar protection.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) states that “Research results overall support a relationship between higher intakes of calcium and reduced risks of colorectal cancer.” They note, however, that the results of studies have not always been consistent.”2
The NCI also points to some studies that suggest an increased intake of calcium and lactose from dairy products may help to prevent ovarian cancer.
Milk and Depression
Adequate vitamin D levels support the production of serotonin, a hormone associated with mood, appetite, and sleep. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression, chronic fatigue, and PMS. Cow’s milk and other foods are often fortified with vitamin D.
Milk and Muscle Building
Cow’s milk is designed to help baby cows grow fast, so it makes sense that humans who drink cow’s milk can also bulk up quickly. Cow’s milk is a rich source of high-quality protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. Whole milk is also a rich source of energy in the form of saturated fat, which can prevent muscle mass being used for energy.
Maintaining a healthy amount of muscle is important for supporting metabolism and contributing to weight loss and weight maintenance. Sufficient dietary protein is needed to preserve or increase lean muscle mass. Dairy protein can support muscle growth and repair.
A cow’s milk allergy can cause symptoms such as wheezing and asthma, diarrhea, vomiting, and gastrointestinal distress.
According to Today’s Dietitian, an analysis of over 20 clinical trials suggests that an increased milk intake can boost muscle mass and strength during resistance exercise in both younger and older adults.
Cow’s milk does not seem to significantly help with weight loss. One analysis of studies found that increased consumption of cow’s milk in the short-term and without calorie restriction had no benefit for weight loss, with only modest benefits seen in long-term studies with energy restriction. Low-fat milk can provide the benefits of milk while supplying less fat.
Milk and Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis of the knee currently has no cure, but researchers say drinking milk every day has been linked to reduced progression of the disease. Their research was published in the American College of Rheumatology Journal Arthritis Care & Research.
Milk and Skin
Got raw milk at home? It has used for over hundreds of years for infusing skin with vitamins and proteins. So, we confirm again that milk indeed do our skin good. The ingredient works well because it acts as a natural skin softener. It is extremely hydrating and soothing on our skin. So also cold milk soaks or milk baths is wonderful as it can moisturize irritated areas of our body. The raw milk on face can also help in sloughing off dead skin cells because of the presence of lactic acid.
Concerns and Precautions
Milk alternatives such as soymilk and almond milk may be recommended for people who have lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a condition in which a person lacks the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down the sugar found in milk for proper digestion.
Some people, who do not produce enough lactase, cannot tolerate lactose beyond infancy. An estimated 15 percent of people of northern European descent, 80 percent of black and Hispanic people, and more than 90 percent of Asians and First Nations people do not produce lactase.
Lactose intolerance can lead to bloating, flatulence or diarrhea when consuming milk and milk products. The negative effects of lactose intolerance on the gastrointestinal system may compromise absorption of nutrients from other foods.
Drinking lactose-free milk, which has added enzymes to help with lactose digestion, or taking a lactase supplement when consuming milk may ease or eliminate these symptoms.
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Milk allergy or hypersensitivity is different from lactose intolerance. It refers to an abnormal immunologic reaction in which the body’s immune system produces an allergic antibody, called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody.
A cow’s milk allergy can cause symptoms such as wheezing and asthma, diarrhea, vomiting, and gastrointestinal distress. Other reactions include eczema, an itchy rash, and rhinitis, or inflammation in the nose. In severe cases, it can lead to bleeding, pneumonia, and even anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal hypersensitivity reaction.