Is Cow's Milk Actually Bad For You?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
There's something about drinking a tall glass of plain cow's milk that can feel kind of creepy — or at the very least, bland and tasteless. Blame it on the rise of tasty milk alternatives like almond or oat, or that infamous scene in Get Out, but milk's reputation has come a long way from the "Got Milk?" ads of the 90s.
Nowadays, as our understanding of nutrition evolves, and the popularity of plant-based diets soars, it seems like every milk alternative is marketed as a much healthier and more appealing choice than milk that comes straight from a cow. So, is there any need for adults to drink cow's milk, or should we switch to almond for good?
"I would argue that milk is really good for you," says Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of the Wholitarian Lifestyle. Cow's milk contains vitamins and minerals, and "almost every single nutrient that the body needs," she adds. That includes high-quality proteins, carbohydrates, and fat, as well as calcium and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern that are lacking in most populations, she adds. "It's so well-balanced, there's no added sugar — there's so many great things about the combination of nutrients in milk," she says.
And yet, as great as cow's milk's naturally-occurring nutrients are, there's a fraction of the population that can't produce lactase, the enzyme that allows people to digest lactose, a sugar that's found in milk and dairy products. Consuming any form of cow's milk product would then lead to abdominal pain, bloating, gas, nausea, and upset stomach. Luckily, there are lactase supplements that you can take to quell these miserable symptoms, as well as special kinds of milk that are made without these troublesome proteins and enzymes. But, for about 65% of the human population who has lactose intolerance, the best way to avoid this reaction is to steer clear of foods containing dairy — especially cow's milk.
Malkani says there's a bit of a misconception around lactose intolerance. "Sometimes people think that if you have lactose intolerance, you won't be able to digest any amount of lactose," she says. And that's not actually true. Everyone is different, but lactose intolerance can really be managed, she says. "It's often a matter of degree, and it can be managed by eating or drinking just less of the lactose-containing products," she says. This might take some trial and error, but sometimes people who are lactose intolerant do just fine with a little bit of yogurt and cheeses that are low in lactose. To be clear, some people do have a true milk allergy, which can cause an immune response to proteins in milk, she says. But for the rest of the population, intolerance is not so black and white.
Fat is another misunderstood component of cow's milk. "Sometimes people get a little bit confused because cow's milk contains naturally a small amount of natural trans fat," Malkani says. Trans fat and saturated fat has long been linked to cardiovascular disease. But there's more recent research that shows that full-fat dairy foods can absolutely fit into a healthy dietary pattern, that's not only balanced in calories, but also improves the standard biomarkers related to heart disease, she adds. "Even high consumption of foods, particularly yogurt, may also lower your risk of type 2 diabetes," she says. "So, that research is shifting, and the fear of whole fat dairy is changing."
If you're still on the fence about re-introducing cow's milk in your life, the first thing to ask yourself is: what do you like to drink? If you like the taste and consistency of cow's milk, you might want to consider sipping it a few times a week. For example, Malkani says that milk is actually an effective post-exercise beverage, because it contains an ideal blend and ratio of protein and carbohydrates. Or if you prefer to get your dairy elsewhere, like from cheese or yogurt, then cow's milk doesn't have to be your thing.
And if someone would have to tear oat milk out of your cold, dead body to get you to go back to cow's milk — well, who knows? In another 20 years you might be burnt out on oat and ready to return to the real thing.

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