Drinking milk originated in Central Europe thousands of years ago, and it became an important source of calories, fat, protein, and calcium for many people, primarily in Northern Europe and North America. In the late 20th century, the Got Milk? advertising campaign sold the idea of milk as nutrition at its finest with the aid of celebrity spokespeople. Milk became a beverage that supposedly makes champion athletes and top musicians. But, is it really necessary? A growing number of milk health studies suggest that consuming dairy may come with health risks—and, according to dietitians, you can get all of the nutrients that make cow’s milk “healthy” from vegan sources.
Is milk bad for you?
Milk consumption has been on a steady decline since the 1970s, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. But, it’s still a staple in refrigerators across the nation and the Got Milk? campaign is still alive and well today. But, the evidence shows that you can obtain the nutrients found in cow’s milk from plant-based sources. Additional studies suggest that milk consumption may be associated with skin troubles, weaker bones, and even a higher risk of certain cancers.
However, it’s also important to recognize the complexities of individual health. Major studies have identified associations between dairy consumption and certain health risks, but they have not uncovered a definitive cause-and-effect, Krystyn Parks, MS, RD, IBCLC, explains to VegNews.
“It’s really difficult to do solid nutrition studies because there are so many variables. Rarely are the only differences in two groups of people intake of one singular food,” Parks says. One’s health is also influenced by age, sex, genetics, socio-economic status, environment, and lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, and physical activity. “My general philosophy is that there is no one food that you need to have in your diet or that you need to avoid, barring allergies.”
That being said, many major studies have uncovered associations between dairy and certain health risks, and there are other reasons to avoid dairy. From an ethical standpoint, vegans eschew milk because its production relies on the use of a cow’s body in order to create the final product. A dairy cow’s milk is the primary source of food for its newborn calves, so in order to make milk, they are routinely impregnated, then separated from their babies.
Dairy is also a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to the methane that’s released when cows digest their food and then again, as manure management occurs. Cattle also release carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, but methane has a global warming effect 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, per the Environmental Protection Agency.
Reasons to skip milk run the gamut from the ability to obtain the necessary nutrients from plants to potentially aiding in clearing up your skin. Here’s are some reasons to consider going dairy-free.
1 You don’t need milk for strong bones
Cow’s milk contains calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus—three nutrients that are commonly associated with bone health. Calcium also helps with heart, muscle, and nerve function. Your body cannot produce calcium alone, so it must be obtained from food and supplements.
Calcium can come from an array of plant-based sources, explains Parks. “Calcium can be found in fortified tofu, leafy greens, almonds, and broccoli. There are chia seeds, which can be added to a lot of different products. A lot of plant-based milks, as well as orange juice, are fortified with calcium as well.”
Phosphorous, the second most abundant mineral in the human body, can also be found in plant-based foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, cauliflower, asparagus, and whole grains such as wheat, oats, rye, and vital wheat gluten, the primary ingredient in seitan.
However, your body needs vitamin D in order to absorb both calcium and phosphorus—more on that below.
2 You can get vitamin D from vegan sources
Vitamin D regulates the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, plus it aids in proper immune system function. But a lot of the sources—salmon, egg yolks, and cow’s milk—aren’t vegan. (Did you know? Cow’s milk doesn’t naturally contain vitamin D. It’s added in.)
Some vegan sources of vitamin D include fortified plant-based milk. Mushrooms that have been exposed to light contain small amounts of vitamin D, but it may not be as bioavailable as other sources. Unfortunately, most fortified cereals contain vitamin D made from lanolin, an ingredient obtained from sheep’s wool. The same goes for fortified orange juice.
Apart from fortified plant-based milk, vitamin D can be obtained from at least 30 minutes of sunlight or from vegan supplements.
3 Plant-based fat is better for your heart
Eating a lot of full-fat dairy products could raise your risk of heart disease. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which followed 43,000 men and 117,000 women, studied the association between dairy consumption and heart disease over the course of a couple of decades. The findings found that consuming vegetable fats or polyunsaturated fats lower the risk of heart disease more than a diet rich in dairy or other animal-based fats.
“These results suggest that dairy fat is not an optimal type of fat in our diets. Although one can enjoy moderate amounts of full-fat dairy such as cheese, a healthy diet pattern tends to be plant-based and low in saturated fat,” said Frank Hu, senior author of the study.
4 Lactose intolerance is more common than you think
It’s estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the global population has some degree of lactose intolerance. A dairy allergy can cause a number of unpleasant afflictions, including skin reactions like acne and eczema, digestive troubles like constipation and diarrhea, and difficulty breathing. When replacing cow’s milk with a plant-based alternative, look for a variety that contains both calcium and vitamin D. Check out our guide for a full list.
5 Quitting milk could improve your skin
Evidence suggests that eating dairy products can cause acne, according to a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. Experts speculate that this may be due to the fact that whey increases insulin-like Growth Factor-1 levels. Dairy products are also a known trigger for the skin condition eczema, whose symptoms include red to brownish-gray patches of dry, itchy skin.
6 Milk may increase the risk of certain cancers
A causal link has been established between the regular consumption of dairy products and a higher risk of prostate cancer, the third most common cause of death among men. Research has also shown that whole milk consumption raises the risk more than low-fat milk. Conversely, a plant-based diet may reduce your risk of prostate cancer.
A high intake of high-fat dairy products is associated with a higher risk of ovarian cancer. However, it’s important to note that one’s risk of cancer is influenced by a number of factors, including genetics, environmental influences, and diet.
7 It may make bones brittle
Drinking three or more glasses of milk a day can increase your risk of bone fractures, according to a Swedish study. In addition to this, the study found that subjects who reported consuming a lot of milk had a higher risk of mortality, too. Researchers concluded that this could be a case of reverse causation, but the results should be interpreted cautiously. A separate study found that high milk intake isn’t necessarily associated with a lower risk of osteoporosis.
Does milk cause breast cancer?
There is limited evidence to suggest that cow’s milk increases the risk of breast cancer. One study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology associated high milk intake in adults with a higher risk of breast cancer. Another study, which followed 510,000 Chinese adults, found an association between dairy consumption and breast cancer. (But, it did not find a link between dairy intake and prostate cancer, as other studies have.) A separate study of adolescents found no link at all. So, is milk linked to breast cancer risk at all?
“I think the real answer does lie somewhere in between,” Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, senior clinical dietitian at UCLA medical center, and author of the book Recipe for Survival, tells VegNews. “We know that cow’s milk contains naturally-occurring hormones, because cows are mammals and we are mammals, and in order to produce milk, you have to be pregnant with large surges of hormones. What the jury is still somewhat out about is how much those extra hormones we drink from cows’ milk affects our cancer risk.”
In other words, it’s difficult to answer this question with a definitive “yes” or “no.”
“Does it cause [breast cancer]? Possibly not,” explains Hunnes. “It’s really hard to establish the cause of breast cancer, but the hormones and casein in milk may be associated with increased tumor growth, and so, it may increase cancer risk on people who were already predisposed.”
For what it’s worth, research has shown that a diet rich in whole fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of breast cancer.