The Case Against Milk and Dairy
Not everyone thinks that was a good idea. Indeed, experts at the Harvard School of Public Health have labeled the milk recommendations a “step in the wrong direction.” One the most prominent critics is Walter Willett, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology and head of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.
“One of the main arguments for USDA recommendations is that drinking milk or equivalent dairy products will reduce the risk of fractures. But in fact there’s very little evidence that milk consumption is associated with reduced fractures,” Willett tells WebMD.
Indeed, countries in which almost no milk is consumed, such as many Asian countries, have low rates of fractures, he points out.
It’s true, he acknowledged, that milk is a good source of potassium. But the levels used for the USDA recommendations are much higher than they need to be to prevent hypertension, according to Willett. “We’re much better off advising people to consume less salt,” he says.
As beverages go, milk is relatively high in calories. One cup of 2% milk has 138 calories, for instance. Drinking three cups a day adds 366 calories to the diet -- a lot for anyone watching their weight.
But Willett’s chief worry is that drinking too much milk may pose dangers. “By now there’s quite a body of data showing a higher risk of fatal prostate cancer associated with milk,” he tells WebMD. “And though the evidence is somewhat mixed, we’ve still seen a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer associated with drinking three or more servings of milk.”
The Common Ground on Milk and Dairy
When it comes to practical advice, fortunately, the two sides aren’t all that far apart. Consuming a cup or two of milk or equivalent dairy is fine, according to Willett. “The point isn’t that you have to give up dairy,” he says. “But it’s also important for people to know that they don’t have to drink milk to be healthy.”
People who are lactose intolerant, of course, can’t easily drink milk. For them, and for people who don’t choose to drink milk, it is important to favor other sources of calcium. Examples include lactose-free dairy, and leafy green vegetables such as collards, spinach and bok choy, beans, and calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk, and vegetables.
It’s also wise to make sure you’re getting adequate potassium, which is abundant in tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, bananas, oranges, and other fruits and vegetables.