In the current political and social climate there seems to be no shortage of polarizing issues. While I don’t think it’s necessary to name them in this post, let’s agree that there seem to be strong opinions and widely opposing views that touch on nearly every aspect of life. Lately, I have been thrust in the middle of a debate on a topic that I have always thought to be largely noncontroversial.
Is it healthy to drink animal milk, specifically cow’s milk?
It all started when my teenage son came home from school telling me that his teacher told him to avoid cow’s milk because he had attended a seminar hyping the health risks of dairy. Then, I noticed that the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate had modified the Dietary Guidelines for Americans “Healthy Eating Plate” by excluding traditional (cow’s milk) dairy consumption. Finally, I began to notice friends sharing their switch to nondairy milks with very strong opinions behind why it is healthier to avoid cow’s milk. Comments ranged from allergies and intolerances to the distrust of the government and corporate America.
Interestingly, while there seems to be no shortage of strong feelings for going the route of plant-based dairy, the actual facts are not widely presented and the debate rages on. So, in the spirit of science-based nutrition, I decided to dig a little deeper and identify the most popular arguments both for and against cow’s milk consumption.
Pros of Cow’s Milk
- Milk has been enjoyed throughout the world for thousands of years, and it is the nutrient-rich first food produced by female mammals to feed their young.
- Cow’s milk is a convenient, easily accessible, and affordable food.
- It is a good source of vitamins and minerals, including those that are typically under-consumed, most notably vitamin D, calcium, B12 and potassium.
- Cow’s milk is a good source of protein (nearly 8 grams per cup) and can be consumed in its low fat or fat free form.
- It contains healthy fats (linoleic and omega-3) at varying levels based on fat content and the cow’s diet. Cow’s that eat mostly grass produce milk that is higher in these essential fats, as well as inflammation-reducing antioxidants vitamin E and beta-carotene.
Cons of Cow’s Milk
- Cow’s milk contains lactose, a sugar that requires lactase for digestion. Individuals with low levels of lactase experience digestive issues after consumption.
- Cows fed antibiotics and grain produce milk containing antibiotics and lower nutrient levels.
- Every nutrient in animal milk can be found in plant foods such as almonds chickpeas, kale, broccoli and collard greens, although in varying amounts.
- The dairy Industry promotes recommendations for milk consumption through well-funded lobbying efforts and advertising campaigns.
As you can see in the chart retrieved from the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.healthychildren.org), oat milk has almost as many calories as cow milk (130 vs. 149) followed in descending order by rice, soy milk, coconut, hemp and almond. Most have 25-63% of the fat of cow milk, although coconut milk has a higher saturated fat content than cow’s milk. All are lower in protein than cow’s milk (7.69 g) with soy milk coming in close second (6.34 g).
Overall, cow’s milk is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, but it’s not the only source.
You may be surprised that all plant-based milks listed have more calcium than cow milk, and all provide a good source of vitamin D. In addition, a diet favoring plants provides other high-quality sources of calcium such as beans, canned salmon, almonds, kale, and dried figs. One could argue that shifting to plant-based is better for overall health, but the question remains: it practical and feasible for everyone to get these nutrients from only plant sources?
I suggest a more pragmatic approach. Try to eat a diet that is more inclusive than exclusive and focus on adding more plant-based foods to your intake rather than completely excluding cow’s milk. Perhaps there is a place for cow’s milk, especially if you like it.