The great debate rages on: Should you or shouldn't you be consuming milk? More and more we're hearing of people who tout the benefits of leaving dairy out of your diet. Meanwhile, most of the population is still slurping down herb-infused, caffeine-pumped energy drinks because we've been sold on the notion that they are good for us.
Some of these newfangled drinks might actually have merit — but good old fashioned milk may still be where it's at nutrition-wise.
Did you know that milk is considered "nature's wellness drink"? The cold, creamy white beverage is full of calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous and a balance of other nutrients that have been proven to build your bones and teeth as well as promote the healthy function of your muscles and blood vessels. And in the midst of all the new vitamin waters, energy drinks, and other artificially contrived beverages, milk is a natural, healthy choice.
According to well-known nutrition expert Dr. Wendy Bazilian, author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet and co-owner of San Diego-based Bazilian's Health Clinic, unlike most other "wellness" drinks, milk is naturally nutrient-rich and balanced with a unique proportion of carbs and protein – in addition to the bone-boosting calcium, phosphorous and vitamin D.
Watching your fat intake or following a heart-healthy diet? No problem. Bazilian recommends sipping on low-fat or fat-free milk.
"Low-fat or fat-free varieties provide a lot of nutrients for very modest – worthwhile – calories," she says. "Milk is also naturally low in sodium, and also contains potassium and plays a role in healthy blood pressure."
Milk builds strong bones and teeth where, according to Bazilian, 99 percent of the body's calcium is stored. Plus, hundreds of studies have shown that calcium in milk helps improve bone density.
"Denser bones mean less likelihood of stress fractures and a lower risk of osteoporosis – a major public health threat for over 40 million Americans," adds the nutrition expert.
The importance of getting enough calcium starts young and extends into adulthood.
"We are born with bones and as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we build stronger and bigger bones. However, after a certain point – around age 30 – our body starts drawing from our bones to maintain our other bodily functions," says Bazilian. So it is important to get calcium such as that from milk starting early in age and then to continue consuming enough throughout your life.
Bazilian says the rest of the body's calcium is found in the muscles, blood and intercellular fluid and is necessary for muscular and circulatory function. She explains, "Calcium plays an important role in our muscles (in the contraction phase in particular) as well as our blood stream, too. The human body works hard to keep a normal balance of calcium in the blood stream at all times to maintain 'homeostasis.' Calcium plays a role in blood vessel contraction and expansion. If calcium levels drop, the body will pull calcium from the bones to replenish the levels in the blood. But if you consume adequate calcium in the diet, you can maintain blood calcium and preserve your bones."
Not only do milk drinkers tend to have stronger bones, Bazilian says "Milk drinkers tend to have healthier overall diets and tend to be leaner than non-milk drinkers." And with today's youth suffering an epidemic of obesity and obesity-related diseases, a wholesome beverage, like milk, can contribute to weight loss, strong bones and overall health.
Bazilian further explains, "Studies have shown that mothers who drink milk are more likely to have daughters who drink milk. Milk not only provides children with a wide array of nutrients but also displaces some of the less nutritious, high calorie beverages like sodas. By some estimates, about 12 percent of adolescents' total calories come from sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages. Low-fat or fat-free milk can go a long way to change these numbers and add a nutritional, developmental advantage to growing bodies."
In a 2017 study, scientists at Food for Health Ireland identified a number of peptides in milk that are bioactive and could be used as a new alternative for the treatment and management of inflammatory diseases and food allergies, according to dairyreporter.com.
Any amount of milk you drink is beneficial but Bazilian recommends aiming for three (8-ounce) glasses a day. She says, "Three delicious glasses of nonfat or low-fat milk a day is all it takes to get 100 percent of your calcium needs met and 75 percent of your vitamin D and a host of other essential nutrients from high quality protein to potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A and vitamin B12."
In addition, milk is low in sodium and provides a lot of nutrition for its 80 to 120 calories per cup. Milk can also contribute to daily hydration needs – it is made up of about 90 percent water, which is essential to virtually every bodily function. As a bonus, milk is economical. Bazilian adds, "It's about 25 cents per cup, which is far less than the majority of new-agey 'fortified sugar waters' on the market today."
Having lactose intolerance – a condition caused by not having enough of the enzyme lactase, which digests the lactose in milk – doesn't mean you can't reap the benefits of milk. According to Bazilian, lactose intolerance is not an all or nothing thing and that people with lactose intolerance can employ some simple strategies to enjoy the goodness of milk.
"Usually, symptoms associated with lactose intolerance can be diminished by 'how' and 'how much' milk is consumed at a time," says the nutrition expert. "Symptoms are reduced or even eliminated in many individuals if they drink milk in smaller amounts throughout the day instead of a large glass all at once, and people with lactose issues do better when they drink milk with a meal or snack than on its own."
There are also lactose-reduced milks in the market and even liquid drops available at the drugstore that you can add to milk to create a lactose-reduced milk. And keep in mind that though milk is a top-tier food source for calcium, you can also get calcium from yogurt, small amounts of cheese, almonds, leafy greens and tofu – all of which can be part of many lactose intolerant diets.
Bazilian recommends eating a balanced, varied diet that includes fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lean proteins, water, tea and milk. She says, "Foods and beverages should have 'something to offer' including great taste and be good for you, but also versatile. I also believe in a whole foods, wholesome and naturally nutritious diet"
Milk can fit nicely into your daily meals and partnered with other superfoods for a healthy and delicious diet that will deliver your daily recommendations for vitamins and minerals. Here are some of Bazilian's tips for drinking more milk:
Add milk to your morning cereal or oatmeal. Seems like the oldest tip around, but still a great, solid start to the day. You can also add milk to a smoothie to boost the creaminess and the nutrition.
Milk is perfect as an afternoon snack – a great balance of quality protein and carbohydrates, mildly sweet and lots of nutrition. Bazilian says, "One cup mid-afternoon is not only easy and filling, but picks up your energy and helps get you to dinner without devouring the contents of a co-worker's candy dish."
Have a café au lait or tea au lait instead of a latte. A café au lait is 1/2 coffee and 1/2 milk, giving you that coveted coffee taste and enjoyment, while reducing your caffeine content and increasing the beverage's nutritional value with the additional milk.
Before a party, have a glass of low-fat or fat-free milk. It's fast and easy. It's also filling and "takes the edge off" hunger, helping you make smarter choices on food and drink once you arrive. Bazilian adds, "The bonus is the great nutrition, but the main perk is how it makes you feel and respond to the social 'pressures' of enjoying a party and maintaining your figure, too."
Bazilian recommends flavored milks for a sweet treat. "While we have to watch how much sugar goes in the diet overall, think about it – low-fat or fat-free chocolate or strawberry milk has the sweetness and appeal of a treat and still contains those essential vitamins and minerals that are lacking from processed baked goods, cookies, candy or other 'usual' treats," she explains.
Recent research suggests that the balance of nutrients in milk can help refuel the muscles after a workout as effectively as some commercial exercise beverages. And it tastes better, too!
A good bedtime routine can really help you fall asleep and stay asleep better. Poor sleep can impair your metabolism and may increase your risk of chronic diseases. Bazilian adds, "I learned to drink a small cup of warm milk before bed as a child with my grandmother. It was a ritual, it was soothing, and the nutrients in milk may help you have a better night's sleep."
Milk can give you strong bones and muscles! Bazilian says, "A gallon of milk weighs eight pounds – not bad for a few biceps curls or overhead presses before pouring a glass to drink." She jokes, "I know, I know... I always have to get a little exercise into the discussion about nutrition... but seriously, this is a good tip!"
So bottoms up to your health – drinking milk everyday will do your body good.
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Originally published February 2009. Updated March 2017.
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