When it comes to milk, many of us have been opting for trendy alts like nuts over cow. But eliminating classic dairy entirely means you may miss important health beneﬁts. Learn what the newest science shows.
You probably grew up guzzling milk. It’s a solid source of protein, and it helps you build strong bones. Flash forward a few decades, though, and it’s no longer front and centre in your fridge – if it’s in there at all. More and more people have gone vegan or paleo and ditched dairy. Even if your diet doesn’t prohibit milk, concerns about its link to acne, allergies, and heart disease may have made you nix it.
Other foods have stepped up to ﬁll the gap. The USDA, which suggests three servings of dairy a day, now includes substitutes like soya milk as sources of calcium.
Not coincidentally, the plant-based milk market has exploded. Almond milk sales in the US have increased by a whopping 250 percent over the last ﬁve years , according to Nielsen, and new varieties of nut milks are regularly hitting shelves. The result: Traditional milk sales are plummeting.
And yet, some recent studies on the health perks of dairy have had us wondering: Is it really necessary to give it up completely? Shape investigates.
WHAT DAIRY DOES FOR YOU
Turns out, milk still deserves its once-stellar reputation. “Dairy is an incredibly easy way to get a very high dose of essential vitamins and minerals,” says Taylor Wallace, a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University in the US. “There aren’t a lot of whole foods like it.”
First of all, dairy is a complete protein, with all the essential amino acids your body requires to function. Even though you can get calcium from vegetables, you have to eat a lot of them to hit your recommended daily allowance. Plus, dairy is fortiﬁed with vitamin D, which is crucial to helping your body absorb calcium.
Not only that, dairy is an excellent choice for active women. Low-fat chocolate milk has been shown to help with muscle recovery after endurance exercise – its protein-to-carb ratio is comparable to that of many sports drinks. Milk might help you tone up, too. People who drank two cups of skim milk after lifting weights lost more fat and gained more muscle than those who drank soya milk, according to a McMaster University study in Canada.
Even whole milk, once thought to be linked to heart problems, may not be so bad for you after all. While it does contain unhealthy saturated fat, unlike other foods that have this type of fat – such as red meat – dairy doesn’t necessarily put you at a higher risk for heart disease. It might actually help your heart, a recent Advances in Nutrition review found. “Certain nutrients in dairy may counteract the effects of the fat,” explains dietitian Jean-Philippe Drouin-Chartier, author of the review and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods at Laval University in Canada.
AND NOW THE DOWNSIDE
One of dairy’s biggest negatives? The stomach problems it causes. Ninety-eight percent of Southeast Asians, 90 percent of Asian Americans, 79 percent of African Americans, and 5 percent of Europeans have trouble digesting it because they’re intolerant of lactose, the type of natural sugar that milk and other dairy products contain, according to the University of California, Davis. As a result, they end up with gas, cramps, bloating, nausea, or diarrhoea when they consume it.
Acne is another major concern for many women, who say they break out when they eat dairy. While there hasn’t been a deﬁnitive study proving that dairy causes pimples, a growing volume of research suggests there’s a link, according to a review in Practical Dermatology. The culprit may be hormones, milk proteins, and/or growth factors in dairy that can cause the skin to produce more oil, leading to breakouts.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you choose to follow a dairy-free diet, you can get the beneﬁts of milk elsewhere. “Most non-dairy options are fortiﬁed with comparable amounts of calcium and vitamin D, and they’re easy for your body to absorb,” says Taylor.
For all the essential amino acids your body needs, drink soya milk, which is a complete protein. (Although cow’s milk has more of one particular amino acid called leucine, soya milk is still your best non-dairy bet when it comes to protein.) Prefer almond or coconut milk? Enjoy it with some wholewheat toast. “Whole grains provide the other amino acids you require,” says Taylor.
“Vitamin B12, which keeps your red blood cells healthy and prevents anaemia, is almost solely found in meat and dairy, so most vegetarians need a supplement [2.4 mcg a day],” says Taylor. “Dairy is also high in choline, which helps your body communicate with your brain and may prevent neurological disorders.” You’ve got a good start if you eat eggs (one has about 150 mg), but be sure to take a supplement if you’re vegan (the RDA is 425mg for women)
If you want to add dairy back into your diet, Taylor suggests three 240ml servings of low-fat milk a day. Or mix and match foods to get your ﬁll. For instance, snack on a cheese stick and eat equal servings of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.