Health Benefits of Milk

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 02, 2024
9 min read

Milk is made by the mammary glands of mammals, including humans. Dairy milk comes from several different kinds of mammals, including cows, goats, buffalo, and sheep. Human breast milk is the best food for infants, but children and adult humans have been drinking dairy milk for about 10,000 years. In the U.S., people generally mean cow's milk when they talk about "milk."

Several different types of milk are available today, such as:

UHT milk. UHT is an acronym that stands for ultrahigh temperature. UHT milk has been heated to a temperature 130-140 C for 3-5 seconds, which kills germs and makes it shelf-stable. So, UHT milk doesn't need to be refrigerated until you open it. Regular and UHT milk are pretty much the same, although some vitamins and minerals may be slightly lower in UHT milk.

Powdered milk. Also called dry milk, it is milk that has been evaporated to remove all the liquid. Powdered milk is shelf-stable. You add water according to the directions, then store and use it as you would regular milk.

Buttermilk. It is made by fermented regular milk with a special bacterial culture, which adds flavor, aroma, body, and acidity.

Flavored milk. It is regular cow's milk that has flavor and sweeteners added.

Condensed milk. This milk has had some water removed and sugar added. This is used mainly for baking.

Evaporated milk. This milk has had about half its water removed using a special process. Unlike condensed milk, it usually doesn't have any sugar added.

Nondairy milk options. Several nondairy milk options are available for those who cannot drink cow’s milk or prefer to avoid it. Nondairy options include almond, oat, cashew, coconut, rice, hemp, and soy. You can get these sweetened or unsweetened and flavored or unflavored.

Protein for overall health

Protein is the basic building block of the human body. It's an essential part of your organs and tissues and makes up most of your bones, muscles, skin, and hair. The National Academy of Medicine recommends you get about 7 grams of protein per every 20 pounds of your body weight. So, for a 140-pound person, that's about 50 grams of protein each day. One cup of 1% milk has about 8 grams of protein, so it's a good source of protein.

Calcium for strong bones and teeth

Calcium is a mineral that you need for healthy bones and teeth. You also need it to form blood clots, help your muscles contract, regulate your heart rate, and help your nerves signal efficiently. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium varies depending on your age and sex assigned at birth, such as:

  • Infants up to 6 months old: 200 milligrams per day
  • Babies aged 6-12 months: 260 milligrams per day
  • Children aged 1-3 years: 700 milligrams per day
  • Children aged 4-8 years: 1,000 milligrams per day
  • Children and teens aged 9-18 years: 1,300 milligrams per day
  • People assigned female at birth (AFAB) aged 19-50 years and those assigned male at birth (AMAB) aged 19-70 years: 1,000 milligrams per day
  • People AFAB aged over 50 years and those AMAB aged over 70 years: 1,200 milligrams per day

Doctors may recommend milk for people over the age of 50 to help lower their risk of osteoporosis, which makes their bones thinner and less dense. However, current research is divided on how well drinking milk reduces osteoporosis in older people. Much of the research shows that while taking calcium supplements or eating dairy products can increase your bone mineral density, it doesn't seem to help prevent broken bones.

One cup of 1% milk has about 305 milligrams of calcium, so it's a good source of this important mineral.

Benefits of drinking milk every day

According to a study from 2021, drinking about 1 cup of nonfat milk per day can be part of a healthy diet and is probably good for you if you aren't allergic or lactose intolerant. Drinking nonfat milk every day could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, colorectal cancer, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and osteoporosis. However, it may also be linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer, Parkinson's disease, acne, and iron-deficiency anemia in infants.

Benefits of drinking milk at night

If you've had trouble getting to sleep, a loved one may have suggested that you drink warm milk right before you go to bed. Experts think this may work because milk contains tryptophan, which your body uses to make two brain chemicals: serotonin and melatonin. Both do a few things, but one thing they do is help relax your body for sleep. Try warming some milk with a little honey for a nighttime drink that may help you get to sleep easily and stay asleep longer.

The nutritional content of milk varies depending on the breed of cow that produced it and what the cows ate.

But, in general, milk is rich in minerals and vitamins, including:

Nutrients per serving

One cup of whole milk (3.25% milk fat) contains:

  • Calories: 149
  • Protein: 8 grams
  • Fat: 8 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 12 grams
  • Sugar (lactose): 12 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams

Fat content in milk

Milk naturally has fat, but manufacturers can process it to remove some or all of the fat. A 1-cup serving of each type of milk has the following fat content:

  • Whole milk: 8 grams of fat
  • 2% (reduced fat) milk: About 5 grams of fat
  • 1% (low-fat) milk: 2 grams of fat
  • Skim (nonfat) milk: About 0.2 grams of fat

Don't give children under 12 months old cow's milk because it can cause bleeding in their gut. Also, your baby's or toddler's kidneys can't process all the protein in cow's milk.

Adults don't need to eat dairy to be healthy, but many governments recommend it to their citizens because it's a quick, easy, and relatively affordable way of getting some protein, calcium, and vitamin D (from fortified milk) in your diet.

But, some of the things to keep in mind with dairy include:

The fat content may contribute to heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults eat only low-fat or fat-free dairy products. This is because diets with a lot of overall fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol tend to increase your risk for heart disease. Dairy products, such as cheese, ice cream, milk, butter, and yogurt, are the main sources of saturated fat and cholesterol in American diets.

Some recent studies suggest that full-fat dairy may not increase your risk of heart disease. Other studies suggest that people AMAB can reduce their risk of coronary artery disease by eating fermented dairy, such as yogurt, or even some cheeses. Still, many experts agree that if you eat dairy, you should stick to low-fat or fat-free dairy because it keeps your saturated fat intake low but still gives you nutrition.

Improving bone density doesn't necessarily reduce fractures. Bone health is more than just taking in enough calcium. To grow and maintain healthy bones, you not only need calcium and vitamin D but also vitamin K. No dairy products naturally have vitamin D; only fortified ones do. And most dairy products only have a little vitamin K. It takes a balance of these nutrients plus other lifestyle factors, such as how much exercise you get, to make strong bones. Although dairy may increase bone density, research shows that dairy products and calcium supplements don't seem to prevent bone fractures in children, teens who are AFAB, or older adults.

Increased risk for some cancers. Some research shows that the fat and hormones in milk, cheese, and other dairy products may increase your risk for some cancers of the reproductive system, especially prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer. However, other research suggests that dairy may help prevent breast and colorectal cancers. Doctors think it may be because of the relatively high levels of calcium and vitamin D in fortified dairy.

Caution on using raw milk. Raw milk is milk that hasn't been pasteurized. During pasteurization, the milk is heated to kill harmful germs that can cause listeriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, Q fever, and brucellosis. The germs in raw milk can make anyone sick, but it's particularly risky for children, older adults, pregnant people, and people with weakened immune systems (such as transplant patients and those with cancer or HIV/AIDS).

Lactose intolerance. It is when your body makes too little of a digestive enzyme called lactase. Lactase helps you break down the sugar lactose present in dairy. People who're lactose intolerant often have gas, bloating, and diarrhea, usually about 30 minutes to 2 hours after drinking milk or eating dairy. Your symptoms may be mild or severe depending on how much lactase your body makes. Your doctor can diagnose you with a blood sugar, stool (poop) acidity, or hydrogen breath test.

Lactose intolerance often runs in families. In this case, your body generally makes less lactase over time. Symptoms often start when you're a teen or young adult. You may be more likely to have lactose intolerance if you are of Asian, African, Mexican, or Native American descent.

Environmental impact. In general, livestock farming negatively impacts the environment in several ways, including leading to water contamination, air pollution, antibiotic resistance, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and an increase in germs that can make both livestock animals and humans sick. But one of its biggest effects is climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Livestock farms release about 57% of greenhouse gasses emitted due to farming. And about 20% of these greenhouse emissions come from dairy cattle. In all, dairy farming emits about 3.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. This means that dairy farming makes up about 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions that are due to the influence of humans.

Milk is used as an ingredient in many other forms of food. You can use different processes to turn milk into the following:

  • Different forms of milk, such as condensed milk, evaporated milk, powdered milk, and whey protein
  • Butter, including ghee and other forms of clarified butter
  • Cream
  • Fermented milk products, such as yogurt, creme fraiche, buttermilk, and kefir
  • Cheeses
  • Frozen milk products, such as ice milk, ice cream, gelato, and frozen yogurt

Milk and nondairy milk alternatives are available in most grocery and convenience stores. Many smaller, local farmers also sell milk at farmers' markets. You may also contact local dairies to ask if they'll sell directly to you.

If you are looking for nondairy milk options that aren’t available in your grocery store, you can buy from online grocery websites.

Milk price

The price of milk varies by where you live and what retailer you buy from. As of March 2024, the average price for a gallon of whole, fortified milk across U.S. cities was $3.89.

Adding milk to your diet can be as simple as drinking a cold glass with your meals. Or, a warm mug of milk can be a wonderfully relaxing way to end the day.

Here are a few suggestions for how to get more milk in your diet:

Milk tea. It is a popular drink in many cultures. To make it, you can brew your tea in milk instead of water. Or, add milk to already brewed tea. Some popular versions of milk tea include Thai tea, boba milk tea (also known as bubble tea), and masala chai.

Substituting milk for water. Milk itself is about 88% water. You can substitute milk for water in many recipes. This can make your recipes more substantial and richer tasting. For instance, you can nearly double the protein content of your breakfast by making oatmeal with milk instead of water. You can also substitute some water in your favorite soup recipe for milk.

Replacing cream with milk. Cream is thicker and fattier than milk, but you can replace milk with cream in your recipes to cut fat. Before using, add about 2 tablespoons of cornstarch per 1 cup of milk and stir to help thicken the milk. Or, use buttermilk or evaporated milk in place of the cream.

How to store milk

Refrigerate milk after you buy it. Store in your refrigerator below 40 F to keep germs from growing. The colder you store it, the longer it should last. Milk that is stored properly should last about 7 days. You can generally tell if milk has gone bad because it will smell bad or sour, and it may turn a yellowish color and separate into lumps and watery liquid.

Fortified milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein. These same benefits can be found in a wide variety of dairy products and some fortified nondairy milk substitutes. Read your labels to look for any added sugars and flavors before you buy milk or nondairy milk products.