I’m not sure about you, but having three glasses of milk (or other servings of dairy) per day was a pretty standard part of my ‘healthy’ and well-rounded diet growing up.
My favorite celebrities modelled the iconic milk mustache while reminding us to drink our milk to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis.
And if you hoped to grow big and strong, well you definitely didn’t skip out on your little milk carton at school lunch time.
Humans Don’t Need Cows’ Milk
Despite all that we heard growing up, however, it now seems we don’t actually need to drink cows’ milk to be healthy. Nutritionist Dr. Walter Willet actually comes from a long line of dairy farmers, but says we consume far more dairy than we need to.
In fact, Dr. Willet says we don’t even need to consume any dairy. We can be quite healthy and develop properly without consuming animal milks.
Why Were We Told We Need So Much Cows’ Milk?
How did we end up as a culture consuming so much animal milk? It’s a complex story as to how dairy became such a huge part of the Western diet.
Drinking cow’s milk begun around 9000 BC when nomadic tribes settled down and began to farm. This era is known as the agricultural revolution and brought with it the domestication of animals.
As this practice spread, milk and dairy products were available but mainly reserved for the wealthy and people of high class. The general population would rarely drink or eat dairy.
Jumping forward to the late 1800s and we see the introduction of pasteurisation, ensuring milk was less likely to contain bacteria and could be transported further.
Within the next 50 years improvements in bottling and transport saw more people drinking milk. Advertising got hold of the interest and moved to ensure cow’s milk was an accepted part of the Western diet.
Want strong bones and teeth for life? Better have another glass of milk!
That’s definitely a reoccurring thought many of us had growing up. From our paediatrician asking our parents about our dietary habits, to learning about the food pyramid in elementary school, milk equalled healthy bones and no osteoporosis as we aged.
Despite this strongly held belief, it seems there isn’t much evidence to back up the need for high levels of animal milk in our diets to prevent osteoporosis or fractures.
What Does The Evidence Say About Consuming Animal Milks?
While animal milk can provide protein, healthy fats and calcium, it isn’t the only source of these nutrients, and it may not even be the healthiest source.
Dr. Willet and his colleagues have published several studies in the JAMA Pediatrics medical journal. One journal publication of theirs reported on data involving 96,000 men and women followed over several decades, in two different studies and found that consuming milk as a teen (13-18) didn’t equal a lower risk of hip fractures when they became older.
“Humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk…many populations throughout the world today consume little or no milk…Throughout the world, bone fracture rates tend to be lower in countries that do not consume milk compared with those that do,” says Dr. Willet and his colleagues in a JAMA Pediatrics publication.
It seems what we thought was once a necessary component of a healthy diet, isn’t actually a necessity to maintain long-term health.
Should We Give Up Animal Milk Altogether?
Finding that cow or animal milks aren’t an absolute necessity doesn’t necessarily mean they’re terrible for us or that we should eliminate them. What it does mean is that perhaps we’ve been over consuming something we don’t need and may or may not have negative consequences depending on the person.
Dr. Willets is the recipient of a Bloomberg Manulife Prize for Promotion of Active Health, and a well-respected doctor in the field of nutrition. He has found quite a lot of evidence showing that what we once believed to be healthy, is in fact unhealthy when consumed at the level common in an American diet. The Boston Globe named him as the most influential nutritionist in the world, and when looking at his work that isn’t surprising.
A few years ago, he and several colleagues were part of a Harvard team which published a study linking high red meat diets to early death, especially when those red meats were processed.
While studies like this have been one of several reasons for an increase in vegetarian, vegan and plant based diets, Dr. Willets doesn’t say the evidence shows we must eliminate all cows’ milk (though he personally chooses not to drink cows’ milk, only yogurt and cheese in moderation).
Fellow nutrition expert, Dr. David Jenkins, says, “Nobody is saying that these foods are toxic. What we’re saying is, is it essential that we should be focusing on them so much?”
Basically, do we really need to encourage consuming so much dairy or other animal products? It seems research is saying no, and that it may even be dangerous to overconsume these products. Several studies have linked high dairy diets to an increased risk of cancer later in life, including breast and colorectal cancer.
Some people will choose to give up dairy due to allergies or intolerances, moral convictions as a vegan or for many other reasons, and it seems more emerging evidence shows that this can be a healthy lifestyle. Dairy isn’t a necessity in the human diet.
What Are The Current Dairy Recommendations?
It depends on where you are living. In the US and Canada, it’s typically recommended that we consume at least 3 servings of dairy or dairy alternatives.
The UK doesn’t give a specific amount of dairy, but suggests around 8% of daily caloric intake should go to dairy (much less when compared to their previous recommendation of 15%). The UK, and several other European countries, recommend far less dairy than The US.
Dr. Willets believes around 1-2 servings of dairy per day is a better recommendation. He also believes yogurt to be a healthier source of dairy than simply drinking glasses of milk.
If you have a younger child, you might be wondering how they can grow without a high dairy diet, especially if they’re a young toddler.
While dairy is a source of protein, calcium and the very important healthy fats needed for brain development, these nutrients can be found in other foods. If you decide to eliminate or reduce dairy in a child’s diet, you can work with a nutritionist to find a good balance of these nutrients (e.g. fish, nuts, olive oil, avocados, etc for healthy fats).