Myth: Humans don’t need to drink milk
Dairy foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese) are rich in nutrients and have assumed such importance in our diet as to warrant their own food group. This is because they are nutrient-dense and provide a package of nutrients that are not found in the same amounts in other foods. This means that health experts and governments around the world have reviewed the evidence and concluded our health and wellbeing are enhanced by including dairy foods in our diets.
WPA Art Program poster for Cleveland division of Health 1940
There is a lot to recommend dairy foods. They are high in calcium needed for healthy bones and provide the majority of calcium in the diet for most people. Dairy foods also contain a bunch of other essential nutrients, including protein, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, zinc, riboflavin and vitamin B12. They have a low GI and help lower blood pressure when consumed in a diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits. Regular milk drinkers have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, and emerging research is discovering beneficial ‘bio-actives’ in dairy such as lactoferrin which enhances bone and immune health.
With so much to recommend them, why are there so many ‘dairy-free’ claims on food these days? Why do naturopaths seem to routinely suggest people avoid dairy foods? Why are there websites devoted to the ‘dangers of dairy’?
Even though whole dairy foods do contain mostly saturated fat, this is easy to avoid by choosing low-fat versions, and limiting hard cheese. Although some still believe milk is fattening, studies have demonstrated dairy foods may actually help with weight loss. The World Cancer Research Fund-American Institute of Cancer Research conclude that the evidence suggesting milk and dairy products increase prostate cancer risk is limited, and consuming milk probably reduces the risk of bowel cancer and may reduce the risk bladder cancer.
Milk allergy affects up to 5 per cent of children at most (and more likely 2 per cent), and 1 per cent of adults. Lactose intolerance is an issue for a lot more people worldwide; however, complete dairy avoidance is not usually necessary. The anti-dairy argument is hard to reconcile with the idea that humans have been eating dairy foods for thousands of years – the Masai tribes in Tanzania still live principally on milk, blood and meat.
What’s the alternative? If you cannot, or choose not, to eat dairy products there are alternatives such as soy milk and rice milk with added calcium. There are also soy yoghurts (check that these have added calcium), soy cheese as well as fun foods such as dairy-free frozen desserts. Life can go on when you’re dairy-free, but it is a little more challenging to ensure your nutritional needs are met, and the taste can take some getting used to. For those who have chosen the dairy-free path, I’m sorry to say there are a plethora of websites also attacking the safety and goodness of soy milk.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Food Myths available in bookshops and online and from www.greatideas.net.au
Woman milking a cow from a medieval bestiary
Editor: If you want to know more about milk and how, when and why humans began to drink it past weaning, turn to Hannah Velten’s Milk, A Global History from Reaktion Books’ deliciously digestible Edible series of small format, fully illustrated books on food and drink. It’s packed with fascinating snippets and perfect to dip into for a quick read or check out when you want something a little more tantalising than The Oxford Companion to Food or Wikipedia.