For most of our lives we are led to believe that consuming dairy, particularly in the form of drinking milk, is is a good way to take in calcium and protein. How else will we grow big and strong? Yet our culture in the US has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis despite also having one of the highest rates of milk consumption. It is evident that calcium is not all it takes to build strong bones. So what’s the deal with dairy in our diet? Do we really need it? Here’s what research shows.

Lactose Intolerance


An astonishing number of people around the world are lactose intolerant. Worldwide, an estimated 75% of people are intolerant to lactose, a “milk sugar” that is made up of glucose and galactose. As infants, our bodies are able to break lactose down with an enzyme called “lactase,” but most of us grow out of this in adulthood. It is clear that if we truly needed dairy in our diet, our stomachs would be more welcoming to its main carbohydrate.

Excessive Calcium Recommendations


Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt contain high levels of calcium , of which 1,000 milligrams a day are recommended by national dietary guidelines. These guidelines are put forth by the USDA, which stands to benefit from high dairy sales. The World Health Organization, on the contrary, recommends just 400-500 milligrams of calcium a day for adults. Calcium can be acquired through leafy greens like  collard greens, broccoli, spinach and kale. It can also be found in almonds and calcium-fortified foods and drinks.


Bone Weakening & Fractures


Studies show that populations that do not consume dairy live well into old age without osteoporosis.The idea that milk builds strong bones continues to be a firmly-held belief in our culture, evidence to the contrary. Research shows that milk can actually deplete the calcium from your bones. Milk is an animal protein which needs the calcium in your bones to help it to be digested. When you drink milk and ingest other foods that contain animal proteins, you are taking the calcium out of your bones.


The most famous study cited is the Harvard Nurse’s Health Study conducted over a period of 12 years. This study was a broad one of 77,761 women aged 34-59. It found that the subjects who consumed the most calcium from dairy foods broke their bones more frequently than those who rarely or never drank milk.


Risk of Cancer


For both men and women, consuming too much meat and dairy can increase risk of cancer. Another Harvard study conducted in 2006 found that of 100,000 women aged 26-46, those who ate the most meat and dairy products had the highest risk of breast cancer. There is also a strong link between men who consume too milk and prostate cancer. In 2000, Harvard’s Physician’s Health Study followed 20,885 men for 11 years and found that consuming 2.5 servings of dairy a day significantly boosted their risk of developing prostate cancer to 34% compared to those who had less than half a serving daily.

Bottom Line


Dairy is a food group that humans are completely capable of living without — in fact, considering the research it would be beneficial to do so. Still, the majority of us who do not exhibit symptoms of lactose intolerance enjoy a glass of milk with cookies once in a while, and we can benefit from foods like yogurt, which contains a high content of good bacteria that aids digestion. It is not necessary to avoid dairy altogether, but, as with all things in life, moderation is the key.


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