Should you drink milk, or not? Milk is one of those foods that has us mystified. As a Health and Wellness coach, I am often asked things like:
- Why drink milk?
- How do I know if I am intolerant to milk?
- What kind of milk is best?
- Should I drink non-dairy milks for health benefits?
Then, there’s the great calcium debate – whether milk is the best way to get your calcium needs met.
Should you drink milk, or not?
The food pyramid says so, but many ‘experts’ are starting disagree.
Confused? I’m not surprised. So let’s explore the truth of milk-drinking so you can make up your own mind.
Firstly, why do you want to drink milk in the first place?
Our modern society is pretty comfortable with milk. Milk makes coffee feel creamy, cereals taste ‘richer’ and helps make a pretty good cake batter.
We are also told by media and experts that it’s a good source of vitamins and calcium, and that it is a food staple for many nations.
So a lot of people want to drink milk because it’s safe, familiar and health-giving. It is socially and culturally acceptable to drink milk.
Some people decide to restrict milk for one reason or another – religious beliefs, dietary beliefs, health beliefs or life-threatening reaction.
Apart from the ‘reactions’, the key word here is beliefs, or the rules you hold to be true.
Part of the reason that the milk thing is so confusing, is that many people/experts speak with conviction about their milk-beliefs.
Yet conviction is not necessarily fact.
How do I know if I am intolerant to milk?
For starters, allergic reactions tend to be sudden and significant, so are easier to spot than intolerance.
Regarding intolerance, Australian Dietitian Glenn Cardwell cites information from Cochran and Harpending’s book, The 10,000 Year Explosion (2009):
- Milk is our major source of lactose (aka ‘milk sugar’).
- After age 5, many people lack the enzyme to digest lactose (e.g. after weaning).
- Human genome studies show that a genetic mutation around 10,000 years ago in European populations allowed people to drink milk past age 5. This was probably an adaptation to help survive food shortages.
In other words:
- If your native language was Indo-European in origin, there is a good chance you can handle lactose with no ill-effects.
- You may struggle to tolerate lactose if you are southern Asian, Japanese, African (some countries/races) and Australian Aboriginal.
A final word on intolerance – symptoms may be either very clear or very subtle, and may appear up to 72 hours after ingesting the suspected food.
Thinking from the perspective of eating right for your body type – whether it’s Ayurveda, the Blood Type Diet or Metabolic Typing – choosing what to eat means considering which the foods work best with your body and listening to the natural signals you get from your body.
Feel bloated and horrible after drinking plain, organic, unadulterated milk?
Which kind of milk is best?
In my opinion, if you’re going to drink milk, choose the kind of milk that your grandmother drank.
I’m talking about a whole milk, organic, minimally processed (e.g. lightly pasteurised). It has a shorter shelf life than ‘preserved’ milks. Cream appears on the top.
This means the milk is as close to it’s natural state as possible, while being biologically safe.
We’re talking whole organic cow’s milk, pasteurised, not homogenised (that’s a ‘cosmetic’ thing).
Or if you drink soy (that’s a whole other debate), we’re talking soy milk made the whole-bean, naturally-fermented, traditional way.
Processing any food, or the inclusion of thickeners, flavours, colours or other additives, can potentially change the structure and composition of a food.
Changing structure and composition may alter nutrient content, nutrient absorption and food safety.
Be cautious of non-organic milks, milk made from poorly treated animals or crops or those stored in potentially toxic packaging. Glass-stored milk is usually safest.
Consider the health effects of xenoestrogens in milk and other foods.
Should I drink non-dairy milks for health benefits?
People often ask me about almond, rice, goat, oat, sheep and other milks.
Do they offer health benefits? Should you drink them?
My first thought is that it’s natural for animals to produce milk.
On the other hand, plants need to be modified and heavily processed to produce a milk-like substitute (unless you are making your own).
One of the key features in a western diet is a generally low variety of plant foods. So including a plant-based milk could offer variety – but then again, you’d get more nutritional value and fibre from the less-processed raw material (oat, rice grain, soy bean).
And just as the Europeans may be better at tolerating cow’s milk, there is some discussion that we Westerners are not so (genetically) good at tolerating soy milk.
Western access to naturally-fermented soy milks seems to be limited (my own observation in Australia).
Of course, if you have an intolerance to milk, or a belief about milk that deters you from drinking animal milk, then you could find an organic, minimally processed plant-based milk substitute.
What a mouthful.
The Great Calcium Debate
If we’re talking about the science of milk, then you have to consider the great calcium debate.
Of course, people need calcium, and LOTS of it.
That’s because calcium alone accounts for 50% of your body’s mineral requirements.
While debate rages on milk’s beneficial calcium content, I defer to the expertise of the not-for-profit website, World’s Healthiest Foods (WHF).
The WHF says that the world’s highest quality sources of calcium include (in order of calcium content per serve):
- sesame seeds
- collard greens
- turnip greens
- mustard greens
- beet greens.
Hmm, milk is further down the list. Doesn’t feature in the top 10. But yoghurt and cheese do!
There’s a great lot of info about calcium from dairy vs non-dairy foods, and the rationale for this rating, here http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=45
Should you drink milk, or not?
Unfortunately I can’t answer that for you. It’s not the coaching way.
But after reading all of this, hopefully you have enough perspective to decide what’s right for you.
And that is based on your own beliefs about cultural value, processing, labour cost, price wars, transport, environment, additives, packaging, toxicity, health risks.
What’s important to you? Do you need to do some research?
What are your own experiences with drinking different kinds of milk, and how it feels in your body?
Does milk sit well with you? Does it feel good, or does it react badly?
Is the milk and biscuits memory of your childhood held close to your heart, or are you ready for a change?
I’d love to hear about your experience with drinking milk. Let me know in the comments below.
Chief Inspiration Coach
I'm a quirky scientist and a Health and Wellness Coach who helps 40+ women gain the motivation, structure and confidence they need to eat right for their body type.