Milk – what’s good about it, what’s not and the alternatives

Dear Dr. Mo: Is it true that most people are to extent lactose intolerant? Does dairy long term slows ones’ metabolism or truly have a power to boost it? Would you recommend substitutes for dairy for those people with lactose intolerance?

Milk's OK

Milk’s OK

Dear reader: I’ve been drinking milk my whole life – I grew up on it, as was the case with many other kids and as it is the case today. Kids need milk to grow, that’s for sure.

Adults? As with most things, there are benefits and there are risks.

So what’s good in milk and other dairy?

It’s a good and relatively inexpensive source of protein, calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D does not really naturally occur in milk but in most countries, milk is fortified with it so you find it there.

To get as much calcium without consuming milk, you’d need to eat stuff like canned sardines or salmon, oat meal, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, tofu, oranges, almonds, white beans, peas, kale, broccoli, and other green vegetables, soy milk etc.

An adult needs about 1000 mg of calcium per day and a cup of milk provides about 300 mg – most of the alternatives I mentioned provide anywhere between 70 and 350 mg per serving so if you have a versatile enough diet, you should be able to compensate if you do not (cannot) drink any milk.

There are talks, which came out of some studies, mostly funded by dairy industry, that dairy boosts your metabolism and makes you thinner but there are cultures who consume little or no dairy and still remain healthy and fit so I wouldn’t say there are enough of credible evidence to support any claim that milk or other dairy significantly tilt your weight and fitness in any direction.

However, there are some risks associated with milk and other dairy so let’s go through them:

Calories and fat

First and foremost, milk can give you excess fat and calories – more than half of milk’s fat are so called ‘unhealthy’ saturated fats and you get about 150 calories from an average serving.
So if you are worried about fat and calories, stick to low-fat or nonfat milk; whole milk has about 3 or so % of fat., which is good for kids but could potentially be harmful for adults. Nonfat is almost like water and to me, it tastes awful but 1% is a lot better and you can slowly get used to it by starting with 2% and then settling at 1%.

Possible risks for certain diseases

There are some epidemiological studies, which have reported that children who begin drinking (cow’s) milk at an early age are more likely to develop some autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes. One study has also shown that kids with a particular genetic susceptibility to getting Type 1 diabetes tend to make antibodies that could theoretically lead to diabetes – theoretically.
So, as with other claims, some other immunological and epidemiological studies did not come to such conclusions and I think that no proven connection has yet been established between kids drinking milk and Type 1 diabetes.

Same goes for some evidence out there that link high dairy intake to prostate cancer, ovarian cancer and multiple sclerosis – these links are still being investigated.

Allergy and intolerance

Allergy: Some people (children more often than adults) can be allergic to milk.
The symptoms can range from digestive troubles (diarrhea is a tell-tale sign in children) to eczema.

Intolerance: In an average population 10 – 20% of people are lactose intolerant because they lack (partially or completely) an enzyme called Lactase (Lactase deficiency), which digests Lactose, a sugar naturally occurring in milk into more simple sugars our body can use. As with any intolerance, usually small amounts of that food would cause only minor digestive symptoms or none at all but could cause bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains etc.

There are ways around this – lactose-reduced dairy products and lactase tablets can help reduce problems with digesting milk and in some cases completely eliminate any discomfort.

This intolerance is more likely to occur in Asian, African and Native American people.

Milk and colds

Finally, let me quickly address a popular myth that milk and dairy products slow/delay recovery from cold and could even cause another cold.

This is just not true and a vast number of studies in the past 20 or so years have concluded that the amount of nasal secretion and congestion during a cold have no relationship with milk or other dairy.
Milk and dairy do not delay the recovery from a cold or make any symptoms worse.

If you have a cold, it’s perfectly OK to drink milk and if it gives you the feeling that your congestion is getting worse, you are probably responding to the fat in the milk and not the milk itself so switch to skim milk (or tea and other low-fat beverages).

Milk is certainly not an all-essential part of our diets and there are many ways to replace it with other foods; I love it and will continue to drink it.

Taken in moderation, most of what we eat can benefit us greatly.

Yours in health,

Dr. Mo