As a kid, you probably grew up drinking milk every day, because your mom told you it would help you to grow bigger and get stronger. Now, as an adult, you hear all these criticisms of milk being high in “bad” fats and hard on your digestive system. What’s the deal?
Precision Nutrition released an article last week that dug deep into this question (and more). It’s a very comprehensive article, and if you’re interested in getting all the facts you can read it here. If you want the highlights without getting into all the research, we’ve got them for you below!
It’s not a case of “all dairy is the same”
Let’s break it down a bit.
The fat content in each type of milk will be different, depending on the animal it comes from, and what they were fed. Milk from grass-fed cows have significantly more omega-3 fatty acids (up to 62% more!) than conventionally-fed cows’ milk. The way in which milk is processed will also affect the amount of water, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals; skim milk will have a much different fat content than whole milk or cheeses. This doesn’t discount any type of milk as being “less healthy” but gives us some context as we look at what we need in our diet, and what choices suit us best. It does help put into perspective how the different fat contents will affect our portion sizes, as in this graphic from Precision Nutrition:
So, what else is in our milk? The big pillars here are proteins, calcium, vitamins A & D, and hormones.
Proteins in our milk include casein and whey. Both are high quality proteins, which help us to gain muscle mass, improve immune function and blood pressure levels, and can have an antioxidant effect. On top of this, milk consumption in moderation can help improve metabolism and contribute to weight loss efforts! If you’ve ever taken a protein supplement, chances are it was whey protein, as it has been shown to have the most benefits and be a bit easier to digest than casein. The downside with these proteins is that in some individuals, they can cause constipation or GI distress. There has been some speculation about dairy consumption and cancer; the theory comes from the fact that dairy helps with growth and might stimulate faster growth of tumors (not be a cause to develop cancer), but no research has ever proven this.
Calcium is important for not only our bone health, but also to enable proper clotting of our blood, and nervous system function. Although consuming dairy increases our calcium intake, high dairy consumption has also been tied to increased calcium losses – so even though you’re taking it in, the body may not be retaining it. For this reason, PN suggests sticking to the maximum recommended 3 servings/day of dairy products.
Vitamins A & D are naturally occurring in milk from grass-fed animals and are added into fortified milk from conventionally-fed animals.
Hormones in milk are a hot topic. There are a few different hormones related to dairy consumption. Firstly, naturally occurring hormones that are found in milk (such as estrogen) due to the fact that cows producing milk will be in various stages of pregnancy and lactation. There are also supplemental hormones added to some milk (given to help the cows grow and produce more). In either case, increased dairy intake has never shown to increase blood hormone levels in humans – our livers do a good job of breaking these hormones down instead. Increased milk consumption will increase levels of growth hormone produced by our own bodies – this can help with increasing muscle and bone mass.
Is dairy the only place we can get sufficient amounts of these nutrients? No. We can receive the growth-stimulating effect from any protein-rich foods (plant or animal). We can meet calcium requirements from our dark leafy greens, beans, tofu, some nuts and seeds, and fish with bones. We get most of our vitamin D from the sun, but can get small amounts in eggs, mushrooms and fish liver; vitamin A is easier to come by in foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, and egg yolks.
This category includes yogurts, kefir, aged cheeses, and cultured cottage cheese. Fermented dairy has proven to be the least risky, most health-promoting, and best tolerated type of dairy. It differs greatly from uncultured dairy (like milk), and contains probiotics for improved gut health, lower levels of lactose, and more easily-digested protein, among other benefits. Evidence strongly suggests that adding cultured and fermented dairy to your diet can provide many health benefits.
Some cheeses are cultured and aged and offer similar benefits to yogurts. Some, however, are processed and contain additives. Enjoy processed cheeses as an occasional treat, not as a staple in your diet.
Some types of ice cream will contain a bit of protein and calcium, but most are high in sugars, salts, flavorings, oils, and emulsifiers to satisfy your taste buds. These should be enjoyed as an occasional treat as well.
The bottom line
Your overall health will never be determined by one “magic food” or one “evil food” (is there really such a thing?). Your lifestyle, activity level, age, and genetics come into play here too. Some people will not be able to tolerate and digest dairy as easily as others, and some may choose not to consume dairy because they feel it doesn’t serve their goals.
In general, dairy can help with weight loss – yogurts and cultured dairy help most – due to the satiety of the high proteins (they keep you feeling fuller, so you eat less overall), the high nutrient levels, and the improved gut health, which aids in metabolism. Dairy can also help with muscle gain due to the high-quality proteins and additional calories to provide energy. The high calcium in milk can help to increase bone density, if you are also exercising to provide a bone-growing stimulus. The high water content in milk can help to replenish fluids, electrolytes, and amino acids post-workout. There is no clear link between milk consumption and health problems, although you should be careful of portion sizes and enjoy in moderation – as with most things in life.
What it comes down to, is asking yourself what matters most. Do you enjoy dairy? Do you tolerate and digest it easily? Does it fit into your daily routine? Are you being reasonable with your consumption? If yes to all these questions, go for it. If no, you have to consider if consuming dairy makes sense for you.
Looking for more info? Check out the original article from Precision Nutrition HERE, or comment below with any questions!
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