Cow’s Milk has traditionally been an essential part of our normal diets providing a good source of Calcium and Vitamin D. It’s the basis of most infant formulas in the form of whey protein, it’s what most of our cheese products are made out of. There’s a good deal of benefit we can get from it, but there’s also some risks to consider as well. We’ll break down what you should consider when you reach for your next glass of milk or cube of cheese.
As previously mentioned, cow’s milk is with many of us from the beginning; we get most of our infant formulas from whey protein and many infants transition to cow’s milk starting around age 1. Milk provides BCAA’s (like leucine, isoleucine, and valine) which contributes to IGF-1, mediating growth hormone, and leucine in particular is helpful at promoting cell replication and inhibiting apoptosis.
We do need adequate levels of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D for normal bone health, but what studies determine how much of and how long we need to be consuming these minerals to get the benefit of adequate bone density? Short answer – we need more studies. Some studies that have been done regarding calcium balance have been short in duration (2-3 weeks) or their effects have been modest in improving bone mineral density (BMD). Some studies correlate very little calcium intake with adequacy in bone density as our bodies find ways to better absorb the calcium we are ingesting. In summary, more calcium ingestion does not equate to better bone density.
Milk consumption is associated with augmentation of our longitudinal bones and overall height. While increased height may be a desirable characteristic for many and has healthy correlations, like everything else it’s not perfect. Being tall is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, but is also associated with higher risks of some cancers, hip fractures, and pulmonary emboli.
Cows are pregnant when they’re milked. This means there are higher levels of circulating progestins and estrogens in the milk that may get passed on to you. In many cases, these cows are given additional hormones to keep them lactating outside of what would occur in a natural cycle. This practice is seen at both conventional and organic milk farms.
Body weight and Obesity.
Milk consumption can help you lose weight!… Not precisely. There’s a lot of marketing that may support this idea, but the reviewed research doesn’t necessarily support that claim. In a meta-analysis that included 29 studies (roughly 2,000 participants), it was found that the beneficial effects of increasing dairy consumption on body weight and fat loss was not supported. Although, there’s a lot to be considered when thinking about yogurt consumption with probiotics, as this is the most common way Americans consume probiotics which leads to improved gut bacteria. A more balanced microbiome can contribute to improved weight loss or better weight maintenance. Those who eat yogurt are also more likely to be participating in a more well- balanced diet overall (a potential confounding variable).
Intolerances and Allergies.
Cow’s milk consumption has been shown to exacerbate conditions like asthma, eczema (atopic dermatitis), and food allergies. A study conducted on infants (with a family history of atopy) over a 10-year period randomized participants to receive cow’s milk or a hydrolyzed protein formula. Those that received the hydrolyzed protein formula had a lower risk of developing any allergic disease like the inflammatory conditions mentioned above.
What this all means.
Clearly, there are risks and benefits associated with dairy consumption, in particular with cow’s milk, and consideration must be given as to how much and how often we’re eating it. Just like all things in Functional Medicine – this is a part of the systems based approach to looking at your health. What does your diet look like (balanced, plant based)? What’s your overall health status? What resources do you have access to (grocery stores, other milk alternatives, etc)? You may be thinking, Dr. Carter, if I can’t have cow’s milk, how will I survive without cheese and milk in my coffee? You can still have it! Just THINK about it first and ask yourself, “will this contribute to your health and happiness?”
Listed below are some alternatives to cow’s milk, along with different sources of Calcium and Vitamin D! Be an informed participant with your health!
- Nut Milk – Almond, Cashew, Macadamia Nut
- Soy Milk
- Goat or Sheep’s Milk
- Seeds: Chia, sesame, poppy, celery
- Sardines, canned salmon
- Beans and lentils
- Leafy greens: Kale, spinach, mustard greens, broccoli raab, bok choy
- Edamame and tofu
Vitamin D sources
- Fatty fish: tuna, salmon
- Almond Milk
- Orange juice
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
Citation: Willet, WC & Ludwig DS. (2020, February 13). Milk and Health. The New England
Journal of Medicine. 382:644-654.