Medically reviewed by Kelly Van Gorden, MS, RD, CD
Is Milk Healthy?
Milk is one of the most fundamental foods available to us today. The majority of us grow up drinking breastmilk or formula and eventually transition to cow’s milk or an alternative when we’re between 12 and 24 months old. Some people grow up loving milk, while others leave it behind once they’re old enough to enjoy other beverages. However, lots of us still wonder “is milk healthy?”
While milk might be a fundamental whole food with plenty of nutrients, it’s gotten a bad reputation in the past for being high in saturated fats and cholesterol. Additionally, some people are lactose intolerant and are not able to digest the lactose (a type of sugar) in dairy milk. As a result, they find themselves with uncomfortable diarrhea, gas, and other intestinal complaints unless they abstain from dairy products.
Today, we’ll explore the benefits of milk, and show you how you can harness the positive nutrients and vitamins of this whole food while avoiding the consequences of indulging in too much dairy.
When It Comes to Nutrients, Is Milk Healthy?
Cow’s milk is one of the most popular drinks in North America, and is considered a natural whole food, providing 18 out of 22 essential nutrients that we need to sustain our health.
Here are some of the nutrients that you’ll find in every cup of milk.
Many doctors advise adults to consume 3 cups of low-fat dairy products every day because they contain such high amounts of calcium. Just one cup of milk offers 28% of the daily recommended dietary allowance of calcium, which is critical for our bone health. Many doctors believe calcium is essential to preventing osteoporosis as we age, and it also contributes to building healthy teeth and muscles.
Vitamin D is also very beneficial to bone health, and most milk sold today is fortified with vitamin D by the manufacturer. One cup of milk contains almost 25% of the daily recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D. This vitamin also plays a role in cell growth regulation and the production of serotonin, the hormone our body uses to regulate mood, sleep, and appetite.
Like vitamin D, riboflavin (vitamin B2) is added to most commercially produced milk. The average cup of milk contains 26% of the daily recommended dietary allowance of riboflavin, which helps our body convert food into energy, and is necessary for proper cell growth. Before foods were artificially fortified with vitamins, riboflavin deficiencies were common, especially among people with chronically poor diets.
Another important B vitamin is B12, an essential nutrient that our body requires to support a healthy brain, as well as nerves, blood cells, and other critical parts of the body. Milk is rich in vitamin B12, with one cup offering 18% of the daily recommended dietary allowance of this important nutrient. If your body doesn’t have enough vitamin B12, you may feel fatigued, lose weight, and experience heart palpitations.
A cup of milk contains 13% of the daily recommended dietary allowance of selenium, a mineral our body requires to regulate important processes like metabolism and thyroid function. Selenium is also an antioxidant, limiting oxidative stress throughout the body, which in turn helps reduce our risk for diseases like cancer and strokes.
Is Milk Healthy for Weight Loss?
Many people avoid milk, or opt for skim or non-fat milk because they want to avoid ingesting too much fat. Of the standard types of milk that are available today, whole milkcontains the most fat, with 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 1.9 grams of unsaturated fat per serving. Consuming too much saturated fat can raise our cholesterol levels, increasing our risk for serious diseases like heart attacks and strokes.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you may want to skip milk entirely, or opt for 1% or skim milk whenever possible. However, milk can also be useful for appetite control. One study showed that drinking milk reduced an individual’s overall intake of fat.
Whether you avoid it or drink it strategically to curb your appetite before meals, you just need to be intentional about your milk consumption if you’re trying to lose weight.
Is Milk Healthy for People with Diabetes?
While milk has lots of nutrients, it also contains plenty of lactose, the unique sugar found in dairy. For diabetics, lactose counts as a carbohydrate, which they need to consume carefully to avoid spiking their blood sugar.
If you’re able to include milk in your daily diet without consuming too many carbohydrates, you should be able to keep your blood sugar at a manageable level. However, most people don’t want to take the risk, so they opt for alternatives with fewer carbohydrates, like almond milk or flax milk.
Is Milk Healthy for Your Heart?
There are plenty of nutrients in milk that our body requires for healthy heart function, but people who love milk must balance the drink’s nutritional profile with its fat content.
The American Heart Association recommends opting for low-fat milk and dairy products rather than 2% or whole, since they contain even more nutrients and less saturated fat.
How Can You Incorporate Milk into Your Diet?
There are many ways to incorporate milk into your diet. If you’re not used to drinking it regularly, try a few different types (bearing in mind the elevated amounts of saturated fat in 2% and whole milk) to see which you prefer. Then, use these recipe suggestions to expand your horizons even further.
Make Chai Tea
Many people in India and Southeast Asia drink chai tea on a daily basis. This hot, steaming beverage is made with black tea that’s been fortified with spices like cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. You can make your own quick version at home by steeping a chai tea bag in a cup of hot milk.
Add it to Smoothies
Want to drink more milk but don’t love the taste? Add it to your morning smoothie. You can use any type of milk in place of water, to ensure you’re getting the benefits of milk without the taste.
Make Homemade Yogurt
Have lots of milk around the house? You can use a pressure cooker or slow cooker to make your own homemade yogurt. All you need is milk – any type will do, including non-fat – and a small amount of plain yogurt to help introduce the cultures that the milk will use to form curds.
Should You Be Drinking Milk?
There are lots of different types of milk out there today, including new and innovative types of nut milks and plant milks. However, there are still a lot of benefits to be found in cow’s milk, which contains almost all of the essential nutrients our body needs.
The key to embracing the benefits of milk is balancing between fat and nutrients. If you drink whole milk, try gradually switching to one with less saturated fat. That way, you’ll still get milk that’s good for you without unnecessarily increasing your cholesterol levels.
Want to learn more about the most common foods we eat on a daily basis? Explore the GenoPalate blog for more resources on the health benefits of our favorite foods.
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