In recent years, with the boom of alternative and dairy-free options, milk has gotten a bit of a sullied reputation. But, in reality, milk is packed with nutrients that can boost your nutrition and overall health.
“Drinking milk is a great way to meet needs for nine essential nutrients, including: phosphorus, B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, niacin, and protein,” says Melissa Majumdar, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Most non-dairy milks contain only 2-4 nutrients and generally lack protein; they may also have added sugars if sweetened. Milk, on the other hand, has a natural balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat (in low fat milks).”
Between soy milk, coconut milk, and the latest alternative milk to jump on the scene, oat milk, it seems like dairy milk is being phased out, but don't let that fool you. Drinking milk can be good for your health-especially for women.
Yes, milk really is good for bone health and preventing osteoporosis.
You've heard this one before, but “Dairy, including milk, is one of the best sources of calcium-which, along with Vitamin D, magnesium, and protein-are essential for bone health,” says Majumdar. “While some vegetables and foods like tofu and salmon do contain calcium, they don't have nearly as much as milk," she adds.
Dairy is one of the best calcium sources.
During your middle years, ages 30 to 50, women are still building bone and aren’t yet losing bone density before menopause,” says Heather Beall, MD, obstetrics and gynecology with Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital. “It’s important to get enough calcium in your diet so you’re prepared for the bone loss that accompanies menopause. Eating adequate calcium can help slow that bone loss to keep your bones stronger and prevent fractures and osteoporosis,” says Dr. Beall.
Milk may help your skin, too.
“The protein found in dairy products can help promote skin elasticity as we age,” says Dr. Beall. Milk also contains retinol, a known anti-aging and skin-restoring antioxidant. Plus, milk’s vitamin D is also an anti-aging vitamin thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects and protection from UV rays.
Dairy has also long been associated with causing acne. However, a review of studies on acne and milk published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that sugar (and the Western diet that has a high glycemic index) may be more likely the cause acne.
And the same goes for your teeth.
“The benefits of milk also apply to teeth and the jaw, which can lose density if you don't get enough calcium in your diet,” says Beall.
Milk is also good for your heart.
A 22-year study published in 2018 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those who consumed full-fat dairy had higher levels of dairy-related 3 fatty acids in their blood (pentadecanoic, heptadecanoic, and trans-palmitoleic), which coincided with decreased risk of dying from heart disease, and approximately 42% less likely chance of dying of stroke. In short, the study suggested that milk may help lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as help lower blood pressure.
Plus, it can help to repair muscles.
A 2019 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that milk contributes to post-exercise muscle synthesis and re-hydration, as well as aiding in post-exercise soreness.
Dr. Beall adds that she drinks it personally. “I’ve run 26 marathons, and I use chocolate milk as a recovery drink,” says Beall. “Chocolate milk has the right combination of sugar, carbs and protein-it’s important to get that calorie mix in the time frame right after your workout. I recommend it over purchased supplements or shakes.”
Does milk actually put you to sleep?
The old wives tale that drinking a cup of warm milk at night to help you sleep does have some validity to it. “It could be from the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin that also helps us sleep,” says Majumdar. “But milk contains amino acids that would have to fight to cross the blood-brain barrier with tryptophan, so it’s more likely the ritual of warming and drinking the milk that’s helpful.” Bottom line: if drinking milk before bed leads to a more restful sleep, go for it! Though, might we recommend a spot of tea instead?
Can milk make you gain weight, though?
“Drinking milk will help you meet your nutritional needs to prevent weight gain,” says Jessica Crandall Snyder, RDN and founder of Vital RD.
A 2017 review of 13 clinical trials on dairy consumption in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that having 500mL per day of dairy was associated with decreased appetite and desire to eat, while increasing satiety. Translation: “Every nutritious food has calories in it, but nothing compares to the nutrient gaps you’d miss if you cut out milk,” says Snyder. “For the 90-150 calories per cup (depending on which type of milk you drink), you’re getting a really good deal nutritionally for that low amount of calories.”
So if you are cutting out milk due to calories, it’s not the smartest diet strategy. “A lot of women start to substitute water for milk in an effort to lose weight. I’d rather see them drop added sugars in their diet, which are straight-up carbs,” adds Beall.
So, what type of milk is healthiest?
Whether you should drink skim, 1%, 2%, or whole, depends on a few factors.
“Percent milk fat comes down to taste and individual nutritional needs: If you like the way the milk tastes, you’re going to drink it and get a great package of nutrition. All dairy milk, regardless of the fat content, has the same vitamin composition,” says Majumdar.
All dairy milk, regardless of the fat content, has the same vitamin composition.
“For most people, choosing the lowest fat option within their taste preference is a good bet, but that may differ by individual.”
Is it good to drink milk everyday?
In short, yes. “The average adult consumes 1-2 servings of dairy per day, while the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages 3,” says Majumdar. The current daily recommendations for calcium will be increasing in the next dietary guidelines update, she says. “Nutrition labels have a daily value based on 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium. As of January 2020, they will be based on 1,300 mg,” explains Majumdar.
Are milk alternatives good for you?
Many people switch to alternative milks because of lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy. While others opt for it "because they think it's healthier," says Snyder.
"The thing about non-dairy milks is that they simply do not possess the same nutritional values as dairy milk, and are likely higher in sugar and carbs," she explains.
Milk substitutes don't contain the same nutritional value.
“Alternative milks across the spectrum have more added sugars and are higher carbs, including rice milk, soy milk, and oat milk,” says Crandall Snyder. “Protein content, as well as calcium and vitamin D, are also significantly lower.”
“If you’re looking for an alternative milk, the only ones that come close to the same protein content are soy and pea milk,” says Crandall Snyder. “But from there, I think it is mostly preference when it comes to taste.”
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