Milk is often considered to be the original superfood, and all over the world, people just assume that drinking plenty of milk is good for us. But recent in-depth research into the benefits and risks of consuming milk and dairy products has thrown up plenty of evidence to force us to rethink the super powers of milk and if it should remain a part of our daily diet and nutrition.
There is no contesting the fact that milk is packed with nutrients. “There aren’t many other single foods that come close to the nutrients you get from a cup of milk,” says Simrun Chopra, coach and founder of Nourish with Sim. Milk is rich with vitamins and minerals, and it also a great source of potassium, calcium and vitamins D and B12, which are lacking in many of our normal everyday diets. Vitamin A, magnesium, zinc and thiamine (B1) are some other nutritious elements that we can get from a cup of milk, adds Dr Amit Gupta, senior consultant for pediatrics at Fortis Escorts Hospital, Faridabad.
However, the health benefit of a high intake of milk products has not been established, and concerns exist about possible adverse health outcomes, said researchers in a 2020 study titled Milk and Health published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Therefore, the role of dairy consumption in human nutrition and disease prevention warrants careful assessment,” it states. Despite conceding the nutrients-dense nature of milk, Chopra says that it is not essential for a healthy diet. “All the nutrients found in milk can also be found in whole plant foods while certain nutrients, such as vitamin K and manganese, that our bones require, are not found in milk,” she explains. “Milk is a good source of calcium and protein… but it isn’t the only one.”
Culturally speaking, milk has been an important part of our diet. “Milk always been an important part of our diet when it comes to living well,” notes Chopra. So, getting people to see the whole picture and take all the facts—including recent scientific evidence—into consideration will be a slow and long process. There is a wave of veganism sweeping across India, but the numbers are still small and it isn’t really mainstream yet. As a result, milk continues to enjoy a bias among us despite the fact that many people suffer from lactose intolerance, well documented discomforts and risks associated with milk consumption and no clear health benefit of a high intake of milk being established.
Milk is definitely a superfood for babies aged up to six months, but it is certainly not so for adults, says Gupta. While there is plenty of scientific evidence that milk has many health benefits, there is also sufficient research that proves beyond doubt that it can cause a fair bit of harm. Both Gupta and Chopra agree that the existing health condition of a person determines whether drinking milk can be good or bad for them. For example, drinking milk on a daily basis can be harmful for people who are diabetic, as milk is highly insulinogenic, which means it spikes blood sugar levels, says Gupta.
The authors of the study Milk and Health found that high consumption of dairy foods is likely to increase the risks of prostate cancer and possibly endometrial cancer but reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. The study also warns that “the reported health effects of dairy foods depend strongly on the specific foods or beverages to which they are compared; for many outcomes, dairy foods compare favorably with processed red meat or sugar-sweetened beverages but less favorably with plant-protein sources such as nuts.”
The researchers also realized that there was no clear link between milk and health benefits among children. “The effects on children of consumption of cow’s milk are less clear because of children’s greater nutritional requirements for growth, and data are more limited. If mother’s milk is not available, cow’s milk may provide a valuable substitute in early childhood. Milk promotes growth velocity and greater attained height, which confer both risks and benefits.” The researchers also pointed out that milk “can be particularly beneficial in regions where overall diet quality and energy intake are compromised” but among those who have access to adequate nutrition, “high consumption of milk may increase the risk of fractures later in life, and the association of greater height with the risk of cancer remains a concern.”
Both Gupta and Chopra say that milk fulfills our appetite properly but also warn against having too much milk. Chopra suggests limiting your milk intake to just a glass a day and having yoghurt or curd for a second dairy helping of the day. Definitely don’t have three glasses of milk a day as too much milk could lead to digestive and gastrointestinal issues, leave you feeling bloated, uneasy and nauseous. Too much milk could even leave you feeling fatigued, sluggish and leaves your skin prone to breakouts, including acne.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.