My dog recently had surgery for a broken bone. While I walked him one day, post-surgery, a man across the street shouted at me: “YOUR DOG IS LIMPING!” I said I knew, that he’d recently had surgery for a broken bone. Not willing to let me leave without offering more advice, he shouted: “GIVE HIM MILK!” Drinking milk, alas, is not generally advised for dogs. But should it be advised for humans?
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends “three servings of reduced-fat milk a day.” This is a perfect amount for most senators, yes, and I’m sure dairy lobbyists are happy with it, but the average American only drinks about one and a half. A new article published in The New England Journal of Medicine by Harvard colleagues David Ludwig and Walter Willett finds that even that amount is probably too much.
The team examined over 100 studies related to dairy-milk intake, and found that “the evidence in support of this long-standing recommendation,” as Ludwig wrote in an essay summarizing their findings for Elemental, “is surprisingly thin.” First, for most of the population, milk does not seem to aid in strengthening bones to prevent fractures. Disillusioning, I know.
According to the USDA, we should consume 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day for bone health, which Ludwig points out can only reasonably be consumed through dairy or a supplement. Conflictingly, the World Health Organization recommends only half of that — 500 milligrams. The related studies examined in the report not only show no difference in hip-fracture rates between the 500 and 1,000 milligram calcium-intake levels, but also show no difference in hip-fracture rates in intake between zero to four servings of milk.
“Remarkably,” Ludwig wrote, “countries with the highest milk consumption, like Sweden, tend to have a higher risk for hip fracture than those with the lowest consumption, like China.” He notes this doesn’t necessarily mean milk leads to more hip fractures; just that high intake of milk isn’t necessary for preventing hip fractures. And indeed, as Carrie Bradshaw once said, “Remember when a break was a good thing? Spring break, coffee break … now it’s breakup. Break down. They keep getting worse. What’s next? Hip break?” Maybe, Carrie.
Because of increased levels of hormones found in milk, children who drink lots of it tend to be about an inch or two taller, which sounds pretty good, if extremely creepy, until the children get old and start falling. A study of almost 100,000 adults found that, in men, each additional glass of milk consumed per day in adolescence was associated with a 9 percent higher risk of hip fracture as an adult. This is because they were taller, and more susceptible to fractures when their big, tall bodies came tumbling down. Damn.
Similarly disillusioning, studies show that full-fat milk is associated with less weight gain and a lower risk for obesity than the recommended reduced-fat version. This seems to be because the full-fat version is more satiating, and leads to less additional eating. It does contain saturated fat, though, which can be bad for cardiovascular health, depending on how it fits into your overall diet. Basically, it’s better than something like processed carbohydrates. So maybe instead of chips as a snack, have a glass of full-fat milk. Yum.
Or maybe don’t. Because beyond being generally unnecessary for the human body, the production of animal milk is terrible for the environment. It produces large amounts of greenhouse gases and methane, it pollutes water, it degrades soil, and its production is breathtakingly cruel.
“There is no human requirement to drink the milk of other animals,” Ludwig concludes. “All the nutrients in milk can be obtained in the necessary amounts from other dietary sources.”