Milk wars

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.

Image by Carsten Schertzer, CC BY 2.0
Image by Carsten Schertzer, via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY 2.0

After gluten, dairy, particularly liquid milk, is the new food boogey-man. It’s not hard to find volumes of pages, posts, and rants encouraging the public give up cereal’s companion, either in favour of a plant milk or nothing at all. One such article caught my attention and between the snarky tone and the bold assertions of no counter point to the author’s opinions, I felt a blog post coming on: challenge accepted, my friend. I would like the record to show that I’m not here to cheer on dairy consumption, or even really defend it; I think consumers should not be bullied into changing their consumption habits, particularly by half-truths and statements lacking evidence. So let’s have a look at the reasons adults should not drink milk, shall we?

Point: No other species can digest milk past babyhood.

This is true. Humans are the only animal that continues to drink milk past infancy, and we are the only animals that drink milk from another species (I thought I would cover all the bases of this argument, for simplicity’s sake). However, no other species can raise prize-winning petunias, cook a steak to medium rare, or build a rocket and fly to the moon. There are so many things that no other species can do, that’s part of what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. So please, can we retire this meaningless assertion? Thanks.

That said, it is true that not all, or even most humans can properly digest milk sugar (lactose). However, it does not at all follow that this food should be off limits for those who can. A better argument that the article could have made is that milk should not be pushed as a necessary food for human health when only a minority can digest it. To figure out whether dairy milk works for you or not, watch your own symptoms. If you think it is causing you some stomach upset, cut back and see what happens. If you’re like me, 30 years old and able to drink as much milk as I want, you’re probably fine, so enjoy your milk. Lactose intolerance can increase as we age, so check your symptoms once in a while, but no need for preemptive elimination.

Point: Babies drink milk because they can’t digest anything else and they need to fatten up and get nutrition somehow.

Yes, milk is meant for helping calves grow into cows, yes it provides a lot of calories and saturated fats. The important points this article is missing are portion and frequency of consumption. Drinking one cup of milk a day (at around 130 kcal) is not likely to cause weight gain, particularly in the context of an energy balanced diet. Drinking several cups a day, or drinking milk in an excessive energy diet may result in unintended weight gain. To put this into perspective, chocolate also provides a lot of calories and saturated fats. Small amounts of chocolate occasionally will have very little effect on your health and clothing size while eating the entire gift box of Ferrero Rochers is quite a different story.

The article also mentions that Asian countries, typically the lowest dairy consumers, tend to have the longest lifespans. While this may be true, these findings are based on population studies and let’s all remember, with population-based research, correlation does not equal causation. There are many, many, many other factors that differ between North America and Asia that would impact life expectancy, including overall diet, lifestyle, physical activity, stress level, emotional health, and more.

Point: You can get calcium from plenty of other foods

Yes, we can. See my point above about not pushing dairy on the public. Next point, please.

Point: It’s gross

When it comes to food, gross is relative. It depends on our tastes, our heritage, our positive and negative experiences and emotional surrounding food. I’ve never tried hakarl, balut, or kiviak, but, my vegetarianism aside, there is really nothing that makes we want to try them. But I know for many others, these foods are a delightful, warming taste of home, and my personal opinion about what is “gross” should have no bearing on whether these foods should be consumed or not. Get over yourself and your own icky feelings, and let someone else enjoy their foods.

Apparently there are a lot of counterpoints to this ostensibly irrefutable points against milk consumption. We probably don’t need milk to live, but humans being the adaptable creatures we are, we can probably live healthy lives while consuming milk as adults.