Is dairy bad for you? If you're unsure, you're hardly alone. For years, we've heard that milk does a body good, especially when it comes to building strong bones. However, we're drinking less of it today than ever. Part of this is the concern that dairy may actually be unhealthful. The sheer availability of other drinks such as soda, sports drinks, and milk alternatives like soy and almond milk can make it easy to take milk off the menu. But is that really a good choice? If you're trying to decide if milk still deserves a spot on your shopping list, read on for what experts have to say.
It Does a Body Good
"Dairy is packed with important nutrients, making it an extremely healthy food," says Melody Steeples, MPH, RD, from Woodland Clinic Medical Group, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation. You probably already know that milk is filled with bone-supporting calcium. Considering that only a third of us consume enough calcium-rich foods, milk may deserve more praise. It's also a top source of the vitamin D your bones need to soak up calcium from the food you eat. Dairy also delivers potassium, a mineral that our bodies require for healthy blood pressure and nerve function.
Another one of dairy's perks? Protein. In fact, milk supplies one of the highest-quality forms of protein available, meaning that your body can use its protein more efficiently than the kind found in beans, vegetables, or nuts. Just one cup of milk gives you 8 grams of protein, or about 15 percent of your daily dose.
Most Bodies, That Is
Even though dairy is packed with nutrition, it's not for everyone.
"There are people who simply can't tolerate dairy and they tend to know who they are," says Steeples. Alternatively, you may be a strict vegetarian or vegan, or maybe you simply don't care for it. Those are all perfectly good reasons to go dairy-free, Steeples explains.
Milk and Cardiovascular Health
Concerns about cardiovascular health have also led to the discussion about whether milk is good for you. One study that recently made headlines reported that drinking more than three glasses of milk a day increased the likelihood of dying from heart disease. Before you swear off dairy, it's helpful to keep in mind that many health experts point out that a single study is not proof of milk's harms. More research must be able to discount other confounding habits that could be contributing to participants' health woes. Plus, plenty of other studies have found opposite results, concluding that dairy lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Keep in mind that it's possible that this is due to a beneficial property in dairy foods, or simply that dairy foods are displacing harmful or at least non-nutritious foods such as sweetened drinks and processed snack foods.
A Cancer Connection?
As for rumors that milk causes cancer, the research is mixed. Evidence reveals that people who consume dairy are less likely to develop colon cancer—possibly due to calcium's ability to protect colon cells from carcinogens. On the flip side, men who guzzle slightly more than 1-1/2 cups of milk a day may be slightly more prone to prostate cancer.
So is dairy bad for you? In the end, milk products aren't a must in your diet, but they can be a great way to get the calcium you need. If you decide to go dairy-free, don't sweat it. Just be sure to fill the gap with calcium-containing foods like broccoli, bok choy, and almonds, and wash it down with calcium-fortified milk alternatives or a calcium supplement.