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In recent years, we've collectively changed our minds about dairy milk, once respected as a great source of calcium and necessary for strong, healthy bones (cue the nostalgic Got Milk? ads). Nowadays, when you go to your local coffee shop, your options for non-dairy creamers (soy, almond, coconut, or oat milk, to name a few) far outweigh that of dairy milk (skim or whole). But does milk deserve the bad rap that it gets? Desperate to find out whether cow's milk should be off the menu or if these non-dairy switches are just a fad, we turned to nutritionist Pandora Symes and dietitian Jenny Champion.
According to the experts, milk has its benefits for overall health and is safe to drink for the average person, but it could have an effect on skin health and contribute to acne. Keep reading to find out what else the nutritionist and dietitian have to say about whether milk is bad for you and your skin.
Meet the Expert
Is Milk Good for You?
According to Champion, whole milk is a pretty balanced food in terms of macronutrients (aka macros), which are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It goes without saying that those who have lactose intolerance or a sensitivity to dairy would want to avoid it, but what about everyone else? "For the average, healthy person, it’s probably okay to drink some milk, but you really don’t need to guzzle three glasses per day," Champion says. With that said, she also points out that dairy milk is made to grow a baby cow, which means there are hormones in it that weren’t intended for human consumption.
Is Dairy Milk Safe for the Skin?
One major drawback of milk is its possible effects on the skin. Although more research is needed, studies have shown a connection between acne and some dairy, particularly skim milk. Symes adds that one growth hormone, in particular, IGF-1, which is great for baby cows, is highly inflammatory in humans, and research has linked IGF-1 to acne.
"Everyone is a little different in terms of foods' effect on their body," Champion says. "Your best bet is to experiment with it." If you're looking to fix your dairy face, here’s Champion's recommendation for how to do it: Cut out all dairy for one week and pay close attention to how your skin looks and feels. After seven days, drink a glass of milk or two and observe how your skin looks and feels the following day.
Should You Switch to Dairy Alternatives?
"Dairy-free alternatives are great, but beware," Champion says. "They’re also highly processed foods with pretty long ingredient lists when compared to cow’s milk."
According to Symes, all alternative milks may also contain starches and thickeners to improve their consistency and shelf life. She says to watch out for almond-milk brands that only use 2% to 5% of almonds and instead opt for a high percentage to get the nutritional benefits. Symes says soy milk is the closest to cow's milk in calcium levels, with almond milk and rice milk coming in after, but keep in mind that soy milk can also be one of the greatest offenders in terms of being highly processed and also containing thickening agents.
It's also important to consider the environmental implications of some dairy alternatives. Symes brings up the argument that the amount of water needed to create an almond is causing global water shortages—it takes around 1.1 gallons of water to create one almond.
Should You Cut out Milk?
At this point, you're likely debating cutting milk out of your diet completely or wondering what the best options are if you want to stick with dairy. If you're part of the latter group, Champion says the one thing she always tells her clients is you can’t milk a cow and get non-fat. In other words, don’t bother with low-fat or skim milk. "It’s a processed food," Champion says. "If you’re going to drink milk, the healthiest option would be organic, whole, and grass-fed. Even better would be a jar from a local farm where the cows are treated humanely."
With that said, switching to organic milk or a dairy alternative can also have its drawbacks. According to Symes, it's been shown that as people switch to organic milk to be healthier, they're showing signs of iodine deficiency, which in turn has public health implications. Symes says iodine is essential for our thyroid, in creating thyroxine—our master hormone that controls all metabolic processes—particularly metabolic rate, i.e., how quickly you burn off food from your diet. According to another study, those who consume dairy-milk alternatives that are not fortified with iodine could be at risk of iodine deficiency.
If you do decide to cut out milk from your diet, work with a nutritionist to seek out other sources for those nutrients. Symes says people in key development years—children older than 2, teens, and pregnant women—need proteins, vitamin D and calcium, but says you can also get these from eating eggs (she recommends only using organic) and fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon. Symes also says to consider a vitamin D supplement, but be sure to check with your personal doctor before altering your routine. If calcium increase is your concern, Symes says there are many other food sources such as kale, broccoli, sardines, and watercress. For instance, one cup of kale is only 55 milligrams lower (245 milligrams) than a cup of cow's milk (300mg calcium). If increasing iodine is your concern, Symes say to try increasing your uptake of seaweeds—think nori in sushi and kombu in a stock for soup. Cranberries and strawberries contain iodine, too. Of course, always consult your doctor and nutritionist for guidance, as the increase and decrease of iodine in your body can have severe consequences, e.g., hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
The Final Takeaway
Each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on a person's diet, health, nutritional needs, or personal preferences. Champion says that if you’re drinking milk primarily for the calcium content, there are better sources, including kale and almonds. Symes personally prefers milk alternatives and eating no less than five portions of fruits and vegetables a day. If you do decide to switch to a non-dairy alternative, Champion recommends seeking out the brand with the shortest ingredient list or making your own to ensure the best quality. Always consult your doctor before taking any dietary supplements or making any changes to your routine.