Why I drink milk

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A couple of months ago I explored my decision to not eat organic foods and boy did that article take off! And since recent reports have highlighted how few Australians consume dairy milk, I thought I would do a similar thing and explain why I choose to drink milk.

Milk and dairy foods often face attack for supposedly causing all sorts of ailments – inflammation, increased mucous production, kidney stones, and bizarrely, osteoporosis.*  Not that there is any evidence to suggest a causal link between any of these, mind you.  As is the case for organic foods, I find that the choice to drink (or not drink) cow’s milk is fraught with much emotion. Recent reports suggest that up to one in six Australians are passing on the milk all together, and many are doing so without consulting a Dietitian.

So today I thought I would l explain my decision to include this tasty beverage in my diet, by taking a look at the evidence behind milk and health.

It’s a core food and it’s chock full of nutrients

A core food is considered a highly nutritious food that we should be aiming to eat most of the time, on most days of the week. They are foods that you would find on the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating or Nutrition Australia’s Food Pyramid.

I try and include lots of core foods in my diet everyday because they make me feel good and give me lots of energy. Milk, dairy products and alternatives are some of these core foods and for good reason! We all know that milk and dairy products are full of calcium – but did you know that they have much more in them than that?  Milk has more than ten essential nutrients – vitamin A, vitamin B12, iodine, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, carbohydrate as well as a high quality protein.

Us Aussies aren’t doing too well at the core food thing. Recent results from the Australian Health Survey indicate that adults are getting a third of their energy from non-core, or discretionary foods. This isn’t a good thing because these foods are often high in fat, salt and sugar and low in fibre, and a diet rich in these foods is not conducive to good health.

It’s a great post-workout snack

There’s nothing I like more after a workout than sipping on a nice cold glass of milk – make that chocolate milk. Milk has two main proteins in it – casein and whey. The specific combination of whey and casein proteins found in milk and the extra sugar from the chocolate powder helps with muscle repair. That’s sure a heck of a lot cheaper than buying protein powders – something this new grad is very grateful for!

Thanks to the specific combination of sugars and electrolytes milk has also been found to rehydrate athletes better than water and sports drinks,  and generally is pretty awesome at helping people recover after exercise.

It’ll probably do ME good

Especially with my recent diagnosis. I have hypermobility syndrome, a rare genetic condition that means I have less connective tissue than normal. It most commonly affects joints and skin but can affect other parts of the body, such as the heart and bones. A genetic test will determine exactly what parts of my body are affected but the wait-list is very long. As I approach my mid 20s and draw ever nearer to my probable peak bone density point, it’s important to me that I do everything I can to maximise my bone density.

Bone density simply refers to the amount of bone mass that you have. Having a large amount of bone mass is protective against fractures. Calcium is important here as it forms part of the structure that makes up bone.

Your  bones, however, are not the only thing that require calcium. Calcium is needed in very specific amounts in the blood and if there isn’t enough in the blood your body taps into its stores of calcium – your bones. If this happens over a long period of time, bones may weaken and the density of the bone can drop. Having a lower bone density, especially earlier on in life can put people (especially women) at an increased risk of osteoporosis, especially later on in life. I’ve written on the devastating consequences of osteoporosis before.

Fortunately, there is a way to help ensure your bones are strong and stay that way into old age. Enter, milk.

Milk and other dairy products are a great source of easily absorbable calcium. Yes, you can get calcium from non-dairy sources, such as almonds, green leafy vegetables and tinned fish with bones but just relying on these for calcium can be problematic as they aren’t absorbed as well as the calcium from dairy sources. This means you need to eat more to get the same amount calcium as you would from dairy.

I like almonds but not enough to chow down on the amount needed to get the same amount of calcium from just one glass of milk. Same goes for broccoli and sardines – they’re nice to eat, but not in the quantities needed to get adequate calcium. A girl’s got to have variety in her diet!

It’s up to you if you want to drink milk

Despite all of this, it is really up to you to choose whether or not you want to drink milk and eat other dairy products. The research on dairy products and health is less conclusive than you might think. An exhaustive review of pooled meta analysis and systematic reviews on the link between food and beverage groups and chronic disease, found milk to have an overall neutral effect on health.

In my piece on organic foods, I explained how I usually weigh up the evidence in terms of risks verse benefits. For me, the possibility that I could already be behind the eight ball when it comes bone density is all the motivation I need. However, that is my personal opinion on the matter. If you find milk disagrees with you, you don’t have to drink it! If you disagree with the ethical issues of farming animals for their milk and dairy products you don’t have to eat them! If you don’t like the idea of drink another infant’s milk, guess what? You don’t have to drink it!

It’s up to all of us to personally weigh the risks and benefits according to our own set of values. It’s really important to remember that we are all going to end up with different opinions on the matter and that that really is okay! What I would like to see is a move to more neutral language when we talk about our own personal decisions to drink or not drink milk. A simple “I don’t like it” or “I prefer not to” will do!

*Yes, there really are websites that promote the idea that drinking milk causes osteoporosis. Because this notion is totally bunk, I’m not giving these websites any more oxygen by linking to them.

This post first appeared on The Nutrition Press and is kindly reposted with permission.

photo credit: steve p2008

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3 thoughts on “Why I drink milk

  1. nataliavalentyne says:

    There is nothing in dairy that can not be replaced with a balanced, plant-based diet, and that includes calcium. In fact, this Harvard report (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/calcium-and-milk/) clearly states that it may be beneficial to look “beyond the dairy isle” for calcium sources, owing to increased risk of cancers associated with a high intake of dairy, in addition to studies that clearly show that a high consumption of dairy is NOT protective against osteoporosis. The best thing you can do for osteoporosis prevention is resistance/weight training and exercise. Also you say yourself that overall, the data suggests so far that dairy has a ‘neutral’ impact on our health, so I am surprised that your article speaks so highly of dairy in light of this conclusion. Add to that that the dairy industry is an inherently cruel system. Forced impregnation, forced separation, animals put to death because they are deemed a “byproduct” i.e. bobby calves, early death for overworked milking cows etc etc. While I know many people will insist there are farmers and people involved in the process who care about their ‘livestock’, these are inescapable realities, regardless of how kindly one goes about making it happen. Not to mention the catastrophic damage that dairy farming on the scale we see today has on the planet. Are we really going to say that all that is worth it – the pain and suffering of living creatures, the environmental damage etc – because dairy *might* be good for us? (But certainly no better than plant foods?).

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    • Courtney says:

      Thanks for commenting Natalie. What the Harvard article that you provided fails to address is the fact that plant based foods contain less calcium than dairy foods. While a cup of milk contains about 300mg of calcium, a cup of bok choy has less than 100mg of calcium. The calcium in foods like spinach isn’t absorbed well, so you would need to eat 6 cups of spinach to get the same amount of absorbable calcium as you do from 1 cup of milk. Yes, you can get calcium from non-milk sources, if they are calcium fortified, but not everyone likes the taste of these products or wants to drink them.
      As with everything in nutrition, disease or non-disease does not come down to a single factor. Good bone strength does simply not come down to resistance exercise, but a combination of exercise, calcium and vitamin D. While it is often hard for people to exercise, drinking a glass of milk (if people choose to!) is relatively easy. I am aware of the mixed research on calcium and osteoporosis which is why I chose to make peak bone density the focus of my article. This is also why I chose to put a personal spin on this article. I have a rare condition that could affect the density of my bones. There is some evidence that having denser bones in younger adult hood is protective against fractures later in life. With my condition who knows what’s going to happen to me?

      I’m not going to address your ethical concerns, afterall who is one person to tell another that their personal values are wrong? If your personal values dictate that you don’t drink milk, that’s fine! However, this is a safe space free of shaming where people are free to decide what is important to them when it comes to their health. Milk and other dairy products are affordable, nutritious and have a range of health benefits and if people wish to consume them they shouldn’t be judged for doing so. People are not “bad” for wanting or choosing to drink milk.

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      • nataliavalentyne says:

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. There is little I can add beyond what I have already stated.. where you cite convenience/distaste for alternatives, I would always argue that the change to plant based is worth it, regardless. All that said, I am not into “shaming” anyone, only education and engaging in critical discussion. Besides our disagreement on this issue, I stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago and support your message of accessible health.

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