Advantages and Drawbacks of Cow Milk Consumption

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There are currently three main positions on milk consumption. Some argue it’s good for our health and should be a part of a healthy diet, others say that milk is harmful and leads to disease. There’re also some that suggest that milk in moderation can be beneficial and can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet, whereas overconsumption of milk is unhealthy. It’s important to understand different stance on the issue before making an educated decision.

Despite of the rise of milk alternatives and many people ditching dairy, most people regularly consume it and believe it’s good for their health. The dairy industry is still one of the biggest and most powerful food industries in the world. As we know, milk is famous for calcium and calcium is a very important nutrient, especially for children since their bones are constantly growing. “Calcium is a major component of bone. During growth, an adequate dietary supply of calcium is considered to be critically important for the acquisition of strong and healthy bone. If children are to attain their genetically potential peak bone mass, the diet must meet the threshold of calcium needed to satisfy the needs of the skeleton” (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted a research. The objective was to evaluate dietary calcium intakes, anthropometric measures, and bone health in children with a history of long-term milk avoidance. The study involved 50 milk-avoiders aged 3 to 13 years which were compared with 200 milk-drinking control children. As a result, the study showed that in growing children, long-term avoidance of cow’s milk is associated with small stature and poor bone health.

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But does this study prove that milk is absolutely necessary for our health and that there are no better alternatives? In the article “Should dairy be recommended as part of a healthy vegetarian diet?” we read the following: “Mammalian infants need mother’s milk for nourishment and growth. However, milk is not necessary for humans after the age of weaning, as evidenced in part by the physiologic decrease in and often loss of the ability to digest lactose (milk sugar) for roughly three-fourths of the world’s population. Nutrients in cow and other animal milks are readily available in other whole and fortified foods. Beans, grains, and many vegetables are excellent sources of protein. Calcium is more highly absorbed from beans and most greens (40–64%) than from milk (32%). Fortified cereals, juices, soy milk, rice milk, and others have higher concentrations of calcium that is absorbed nearly as well as dairy calcium (28–36%). Furthermore, diets high in animal protein and sodium have been shown to increase calcium loss.” The World Health Organization (WHO) explains this apparent paradox by noting: “the adverse effect of protein, in particular, animal protein, might outweigh the positive effect of calcium intake on calcium balance.” Instead, the WHO recommends “increasing physical activity, reducing intakes of sodium and animal protein, and increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables to promote healthy bones” (Amy Joy Lanou).

There are many who avoid dairy for ethical reasons, such as animal cruelty, or ecological reasons, such as an affect dairy industry has on climate change, etc. But it seems that more and more people are switching to dairy-free alternatives for health reasons. Modern research puts serious doubts on the health halo once held by milk. After years and years of ad campaigns telling the public that milk builds strong bones, a more recent long-term study has shown that high levels of milk consumption actually increase rates of bone fracture and mortality. (BMJ, Clinical Research Ed.) The Harvard University T. Chan School of Public Health reports that various components of dairy may be responsible for higher rates of ovarian and prostate cancers. The high saturated fat content of dairy can raise levels of LDL cholesterol and may put people at greater risk of heart disease. And of course, lactose intolerance is responsible for immediate drawbacks to dairy consumption in a huge portion of the population – the U.S. National Library of Medicine estimates that 65% of people are unable or less able to digest lactose after infancy, and that percentage is higher among some minority racial and ethnic groups.

Some tend to choose the middle ground between regularly and abundantly consuming dairy products or completely avoiding them. Each person is unique; therefore, it might be wise to choose a more personal approach when it comes to diet and lifestyle. The NHS, the UK's biggest health website, which is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), offers a balanced approach. “Eating a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of maintaining good health, and can help you feel your best. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain healthy body weight”. The Eatwell Guide shows that in order to have a healthy, balanced diet, people should try to “eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day; base meals on higher fiber starchy foods like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta; have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks); eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein; choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat them in small amounts; drink plenty of fluids (at least 6 to 8 glasses a day); foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar, have these less often and in small amounts.”

Specifically, about the cow's milk, they say: “Milk and dairy foods, such as cheese and yogurt, are good sources of protein. They also contain calcium, which helps keep your bones healthy”, but “A diet high in saturated fat can also lead to raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, and this can put you at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke”. “For older children and adults, it's a good idea to go for lower fat milks because having too much fat in your diet can result in you becoming overweight. If you're trying to cut down on fat, try swapping to 1% fat or skimmed milk, as these still contain the important nutritional benefits of milk, but are lower in fat.” Since some people have allergies and therefore can’t consume dairy as is, “there are a number of lactose-free dairy products available to buy that are suitable for people with lactose intolerance. These contain the same vitamins and minerals as standard dairy products, but they also have an added enzyme called lactase, which helps digest any lactose so the products don't trigger any symptoms. But remember that milk and dairy foods are good sources of important nutrients, so don't cut them out of your or your child's diet without first speaking to your GP or dietitian”. (NHS, Dairy and alternatives in your diet) This approach makes you wonder whether it’s really black and white or there is a grey area when it comes to milk and our health.

With studies on both sides and so many different points of view on the issue one may only wonder what to believe. Is milk good for our health or not? How much of it may be beneficial and how much is harmful? Taking into account obvious financial interest in the topic, it’s important to be careful in making a decision since not all resources can be reliable.

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