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Is milk good for you?

Don't listen to detractors, milk has many health benefits

I recently visited a dairy farm and especially admired the 24-hour-old calves.

They already were up walking around one day after birth. We humans take about a year to do that.

A Brown Swiss calf with long eyelashes and I bonded. It licked my hand with its rough tongue and I was carried back to my childhood visits to my relatives’ farm. My grandpa would take me to the barn to see the calves, and they liked to suck on my little hands back then.

As I admired the bovine baby during my recent farm visit, I reminisced about calling my son a “little calf” when he was young. He always wanted “more milk.”

In fact, the last time we were at a grocery store, my 22-year-old son asked me a question about milk. I was helping him restock his fridge and pantry with food.

“Mom, is milk really good for you?” he asked. “My friend at work says it isn’t.”

I almost asked him what her nutrition credentials are. I figure that she’s probably cute.

“I bet she found some unusual information on the Internet. What do you think I’m going to say?” I asked him.

He grinned and didn’t respond to my question as I added a gallon of milk to our cart. He knows I wouldn’t do anything to harm his health.

I was thinking of the numerous jugs of milk that he has consumed in his lifetime and the strapping guy he grew to be.

Milk provides a wide variety of nutrients, including protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, B vitamins and several other nutrients essential for growth and health. Milk is fortified with vitamins A and D.

Other foods, such as kale, dry edible beans, broccoli, sardines and some types of orange juice and cereal also provide calcium. Milk has about 300 milligrams of calcium per cup, while broccoli has about 40 milligrams per cup. Besides, the natural calcium in dairy usually is better absorbed by our bodies.

Nutrition is all about choices, and we have a lot of conflicting and sometimes alarming information about nutrition to sort through before we reach the “nugget of truth.”

For example, you can purchase plant-based milk, such as almond milk and several other types. However, the alternative types of milk require a greater level of nutrient addition at the point of processing to help them reach the levels found naturally in cow’s milk.

If you are allergic to milk or follow a vegan (plant-only) diet, you need to avoid cow’s milk and its products. Look for the allergen statement on foods; if the food “contains milk,” you will be informed of that fact. If you have lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest the natural sugar in milk, you may tolerate cheese or yogurt. Some people with lactose intolerance tolerate smaller amounts of milk with meals.

What does recent published research say about dairy and health? I found a 2016 article published by the National Institutes of Health. The scientists evaluated 149 research articles in their analysis of the evidence about dairy and health. In brief, these are some of the high points about dairy.

Many studies have shown that dairy products have a beneficial effect on bone growth during childhood and adolescence. The researchers also reported that dairy foods were associated in many studies with greater bone density among adults.

However, the associations between hip fracture risk and dairy foods were variable. In fact, some studies showed that the hip fracture rate was higher in places where calcium intake was greater, which was unexpected. As the researchers teased out the associations, they suggested that the vitamin D intake may not have been high enough to provide a protective effect. More research is needed.

Some studies have shown a potential role between dairy foods, especially yogurt, and weight management. Eating at least seven weekly servings of yogurt, including whole milk yogurt, was associated with a reduced likelihood of being overweight.

Although some people who suffer from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis skip dairy products because they believe that milk promotes an inflammatory response, the authors found no available evidence for these patients to avoid milk and dairy.

Some studies have shown no associations between dairy and greater risk of heart disease, while others have reported a reduced risk of heart disease associated with increased consumption of dairy. In other words, dairy isn’t bad for your heart and it may be beneficial. More research is needed in the area of low-fat versus high-fat dairy and health.

One extensive review paper found that consuming more dairy was shown to reduce the risk of stroke and high blood pressure, especially when combined with a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Check out the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet to learn more.

Be sure to visit with a qualified professional to determine if you are meeting the recommendations for calcium and vitamin D. Visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov to analyze your diet.

Learn more about dairy during, June, which is Dairy Month in both the U.S. and Canada. Visit a dairy farm to meet the farmer and learn more about his or her practices.

Here’s a recipe adapted from the Midwest Dairy Council recipe collection. Serve with a side of fresh fruit and glass of milk for a complete breakfast.


Cheesy breakfast quesadilla

  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten (or 1/2 c. egg substitute)
  • 2 tbsp. milk
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • 1 tbsp. diced green pepper
  • 1 tbsp. diced onion
  • 1/2 c. grated light jalapeno cheddar cheese
  • 
2 (6-inch) fat-free tortillas
  • 2 tbsp. grated light cheddar cheese
  • Salsa, sour cream (optional garnishes)

Lightly beat eggs with milk. In a skillet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, cook eggs with green pepper and onion. Add cheese and heat until melted. Heat tortillas in a microwave oven for 30 seconds until warm. Layer a tortilla, egg mixture and tortilla. Sprinkle cheese on top. Slice into fourths and serve.

Makes two servings. Each serving has 270 calories, 10 grams (g) fat, 22 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 1.5 g fibre and 690 milligrams sodium.

This recipe can help you add some dairy foods to your diet.
photo: Midwest Dairy Council

About the author

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Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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