Is Milk Bad For You? 8 Reasons Why You’ll Want to Stay Away From Dairy
If you’re like most Americans, you’ve grown up thinking you need to consume dairy to stay healthy. You subscribe to the idea that milk does a body good because that’s what dietary guidelines tell you. Plus, you need milk and other dairy products to build strong bones, right?
Confession: That was once me. I grew up having milk at every meal. And cheese? Sign me up, especially if it meant pizza was involved. Even when I began venturing into veganism as an adult, I held onto dairy. My rationale: Wasn’t I supposed to eat dairy, and how could it be harming animals?
Sound familiar? Sorry to burst your dairy bubble, but you – and I – have been misled about dairy. “The positive messaging surrounding dairy is both industry and government-backed,” says Dotsie Bausch, Olympic medalist in cycling and executive director of Switch4Good, an organization designed to raise awareness about the dangers of dairy, adding that most doctors aren’t even fully aware of dairy's health dangers, as they get little training in nutrition. “Thanks to massive marketing budgets, most people only hear what the industry wants them to hear.”
Call it the not-so-little white lie, but dairy isn’t the health food you think it is, which is one reason Canada recently removed dairy from its food guide, and the sooner you stop consuming dairy, in the form of milk, cream, butter, and cheese, the healthier you’ll become, the lighter your footprint will be on the earth, and the more you’ll do for animal welfare. Here are eight reasons to divorce yourself from dairy, for good.
1. Dairy Products Raise Your Risk of Heart Disease
The top sources of saturated fat in the American diet? Milk and dairy products, says Lee Crosby, R.D., nutrition education program manager at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They’re also loaded with cholesterol, and studies show that diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease, the number one killer of men and women in the United States.
But that’s not your only health concern when it comes to dairy. “Dairy products are also linked with two other major diseases, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” Crosby says. And don’t think you’re off the hook if you choose low-fat or skim milk. It may not contain saturated fat, but it does have cholesterol and comes with all of the same deleterious side effects.
2. Milk Does Not Necessarily Build Strong Bones
What about dairy for strong bones? Don’t count on it. Although dairy is rich in calcium and protein, which you need for bone health, the research studies go back and forth on this issue. Some facts are clear. “Countries with the highest dairy intake have the highest osteoporosis incidents,” Crosby says. Many studies also show no link between dairy intake and reduced bone fractures. Fortunately, there are safer foods to get your calcium from, including spinach, Brussels sprouts, all dark leafy greens, beans, and blackstrap molasses.
3. Dairy Consumption Has Been Linked to Increased Risk of Cancer
Cancer risk is another top reason to avoid dairy. Start with prostate cancer. Crosby points to a study from Cancer Research which found that men who drank two or more glasses of milk a day – 83 percent was skim or low-fat -- had a 60 percent increased risk of advanced prostate cancer. Yet another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed a 32 percent increased risk for prostate cancer among men who had 2.5 servings of dairy per day versus less than half a serving a day. And among males, drinking cows’ milk every day was found to increase their risk of advanced prostate cancer threefold, according to a study from the American Journal of Epidemiology.
What about breast cancer? That link is growing stronger, as more studies reveal a link between drinking full-fat dairy and increased risk of breast cancer. A recent study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that women who drank as little as two to three glasses of cow’s milk a day increased their relative risk of breast cancer by up to 80 percent. Among breast cancer survivors, dairy can raise the risk of recurrence, Crosby says. In a study of women who had already had breast cancer, researchers found that consuming one or more servings of high-fat dairy raised the mortality risk by 49 percent compared with those women who ate less than half a serving a day, according to a study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. And several studies show that dairy products may increase your risk of ovarian cancer, as well.
4. Estrogen in Dairy Poses Risks to Humans, Men as Well as Women
One culprit driving these cancers is the estrogen in dairy. While milk has always contained estrogen, it’s higher than it used to be, as modern dairies typically milk cows deep into their pregnancy when they produce more estrogen. “Estrogens in dairy, along with other components of milk, may be the reason dairy consumers have been found to have higher levels of estradiol, a type of estrogen in their blood,” Crosby says. “And we know that estrogen can fuel breast cancer growth.” Plus, dairy contains an insulin-like growth factor called IGF-1, which causes your body to ramp up its production of IGF-1. That’s beneficial if you’re a baby cow – “it turns an 80-pound calf into a 1,400-pound cow,” Crosby says – but not if you’re a human. Estrogen gets passed through the dairy to humans, which is why so many studies are emerging about the link between full-fat dairy and hormonal cancers.
5. Dairy May Adversely Affect Fitness Levels by Causing Inflammation
Despite the fact that athletes are seen posing in milk ads, or that chocolate milk has been touted as a recovery drink, dairy appears to hinder athletic performance in several ways, Bausch says. For starters, it causes excess mucous production, which makes it harder to breathe during workouts. Once that breathing is affected, your fitness performance will suffer.
Dairy can also constrict blood flow and make the crucial delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the cells less efficient. What’s more, dairy can cause inflammation which means your cells take longer to recover, so you may not be able to hit it again the next day, or get injured trying, something Bausch experienced.
“Dairy is an inflammatory food, and athletes are constantly fighting inflammation to repair broken-down muscles and get back to training,” she says, adding that once she abandoned dairy, her recovery time dramatically shortened, so she was able to train at the same high intensity level more often. “If you’re inflamed, you’re not at your best, and until you ditch dairy, you don’t know your true limit.”
6. Dairy Farming Is a Leading Contributor to Greenhouse Gases and Water Use
Simply put, “dairy is a death sentence for the environment,” Bausch says. “It taxes our planet’s land and water while simultaneously polluting it.” The waste from a dairy farm of 2,500 cows is equal to the waste of a city the size of Minneapolis. It also takes 1,000 gallons of water just to produce one gallon of cow’s milk. “That’s more than any plant milk, including almond,” Bausch says, since almonds are known to be thirsty plants. And then there’s air pollution, Bausch noting that the production of raw milk makes up 38 percent of greenhouse gases that result from eccentric emissions, or rather, the global collective of cow burps and gas.
7. Dairy cows suffer some of the worst fates in the animal agriculture industry
When you consider what dairy animals endure, it’s fair to say they’re some of the most mistreated animals in animal agriculture. “These animals bear the abuse longer than other animals raised for food,” Bausch says. Animals raised for meat have short lives: Chickens and pigs are killed at just a few months old while cows are about three years old. Dairy cows, however, must endure being strapped to milking machines for five years (their normal life span is 15 to 20 years), and their existence is almost too sad to fathom.
To produce milk, cows give birth after forced insemination, are then separated from their offspring just days after they’re born, and forced to milk for as long as possible. Once a female cow is “spent,” meaning she doesn’t produce milk at high volumes, she’s sent to slaughter.
8. Dairy is Cheaper Than Plant-Based Milk, So It's a Socio-Economic Issue
"The fact that private and public sectors promote dairy to all is a form of dietary racism,” Bausch says. Between 70 to 95 percent of BIPOC communities suffer from lactose intolerance, where consuming dairy will make them feel sick. Coffee shops place what Bausch calls a “racial tax” on their menus by forcing them to pay extra for plant-based milk in their coffee drinks. And schoolkids get given cartons of milk at the cafeteria and any child who receives free or subsidized lunch for economic reasons is forced to accept that dairy carton unless they have a doctor’s note. “It’s not fair that a white majority is pushing dairy onto BIPOC populations who are largely lactose intolerant,” she adds.
The good news? Not only do you not need dairy, but there are also so many plant-based dairy alternatives on the market now that it’s easier than ever to dump dairy from your diet.
For the best plant-based kinds of milk that we tasted tested, check out this list.