For years, milk was seen as a miracle food — packed with nutrition, easy to consume and relatively inexpensive.
Then came the milk duds — the naysayers who argued that humans weren’t meant to consume cow’s milk and other dairy products. Spurred by 2005’s best-selling pro-vegan nutrition book The China Study, a small but growing segment of the general public has turned skeptical of dairy’s health benefits.
Last year’s Netflix documentary What the Health continued to fan the flames of the anti-dairy movement, though many doctors dismissed the film as grossly inaccurate. On social media, there’s no shortage of people taking potshots against “mammal udder juice products” to quote a satiric video making the rounds, “If Milk Commercials Were Honest.”
Yet from a scientific standpoint, the anti-dairy movement is — for the most part — udder nonsense, nutrition experts say.
In 2016, two scientific publications analyzed more than a dozen studies of dairy’s effect on our health. A Food & Nutrition Research meta-analysis concluded that not only do milk and dairy products help people meet nutritional recommendations, “they may protect against the most prevalent chronic diseases, whereas very few adverse effects have been reported.”
A meta-analysis in Nutrition Journal looked into the supposed link between dairy and cancer and concluded that dairy products “have no significant impact” on cancer mortality risk.
That said, not every dairy product is super-healthy — especially when it comes to fat content.
Here are five things to know about dairy:
It’s not just for kids
We’ve all heard that dairy is good for growing bodies, but it can improve our health in our golden years, too.
Calcium and other vitamins in milk can help prevent osteoporosis in adults and its high protein content helps those over 70 maintain muscle strength, says Jo Ann Carson, a registered dietitian and professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“It’s a nice package of nutrients if you want to live to 90 and still have muscle structure and bones that don’t crumble,” she says.
Cut back on whole milk
Although two recent studies suggest possible health benefits to drinking whole milk, nutritionists say non-fat or low-fat are still the healthiest choices.
The problem with whole milk is it has a lot of saturated fat, cholesterol and calories, says Bridget McCormick, a registered dietitian at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth.
“With our populations’ rising obesity rates, choosing lower fat milk and dairy products is a good way to scale back the calories and still get nutrition,” she says.
All yogurts weren’t created equal
There’s been a lot of recent buzz about live bacteria being good for digestive health — something yogurt companies have been telling us for years.
Still, some yogurts are packed with so much added sugar that they’re more like desserts than health foods. Carson says to choose plain, non-fat yogurt that is fortified with Vitamin D.
“A lot of the fancy yogurts are made with whole milk, and I would not encourage that,” she says. “Buy your own plain yogurt and maybe add fresh fruits or nuts to it. That way you have control over what’s in it.”
Watch the cheese and skip ice cream
Carson recommends eating low-fat cheese in place of regular cheese, and cutting way back on ice cream.
“Some people count ice cream as dairy — and it does give you some calcium — but it typically has a lot of saturated fat and added sugar,” Carson says. “It’s like saying ‘Are you going to have a candy bar or ice cream as your snack?’ Well, maybe ice cream is a little better for you, but I wouldn’t encourage either one as part of a healthy diet.”
And while some people define butter as a dairy product, the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks otherwise: “Foods made from milk that have little to no calcium, such as cream cheese, cream and butter, are not [part of the dairy food group],” according to the USDA website choosemyplate.gov.
Tips for the lactose intolerant
A small number of people struggle with serious milk allergies, but a big chunk of the population is lactose intolerant, meaning our bodies can’t fully digest the sugar, or lactose, in milk. The result? Gas and diarrhea.
Carson suggests people with lactose intolerance buy lactose-free milk, use lactase supplements or simply cut back on the amount of milk they consume.
“If we don’t challenge our body with any lactose, then our body stops making lactase,” she says. “Some people who are lactose intolerant and have stopped drinking milk might be able to tolerate it by gradually adding it in.”
But wait — doesn’t lactose intolerance prove the argument that humans aren’t designed to drink milk past infancy?
“I don’t buy into that,” Carson says. “There’s no scientific evidence to say dairy is not healthy for us,” she said, adding that “there’s plenty of scientific evidence that says consuming something that gives you more protein, more calcium and more vitamin D is a good thing.”