A Happy, Healthy Family

6.01.2016

Got {Something Other Than} Milk?



Okay, guys. Let's talk about milk for a minute.

Now, I know most of us can't imagine a life without pizza, macaroni and cheese, chocolate, cheesecake, and ice cream, and I understand. Those foods are delicious! But they also all contain cow's milk.

So what? Cow's milk is an excellent source of calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and other minerals, right?

Yes, but so are many other foods. So why does our society blindly believe that cow's milk is so nutritious?

After all, cow's milk is really cow breast milk, and why are humans drinking glasses of cow breast milk, pouring cow breast milk all over their cereal, baking with cow breast milk, and eating cheese made from cow breast milk on pizzas, crackers, and pasta?

Why is there a push to wean babies from their mothers' human breast milk at one year and shove a bottle filled with cow breast milk (designed to nourish 100-pound calves as they become 800-pound cows) in their mouths?

And why are children, teenagers, and adults continuing to drink that cow breast milk their entire lives? Most people would surely give the side-eye to an adult pouring human breast milk on his or her cereal or making cheese out of it, right?

Now, this is not an anti-breast milk post at all. I am a huge breast feeding advocate. What I am not an advocate of, however, is the notion that cow's milk is nature's perfect drink and that we all need to be drinking it as much as possible. Just as human breast milk is tailor-made for each mother-baby pair, cow's milk is made for calves, not for humans.

Consider the fact that we are the only animal that drinks another animal's breast milk.

But you wouldn't drink dog's milk or cat's milk, would you? What about a nice, cold glass of rat's milk? Does that sound tasty? Why not? What's the difference?

Now, you may be thinking, "What I buy at the store does not come straight from the cow. It has been pasteurized, most of the fat has been removed (if you're drinking skim), etc." Fine. But some researchers believe that those very processes that make cow's milk not so much like breast milk also reduce its nutrient content.

Let's look at the facts.

What's good about cow's milk?
Cow's milk has high levels of calcium, potassium, protein, and Vitamin K. The general thinking has always been that milk leads to strong bones.

Where else can I find those same benefits?
I will write a more detailed post soon about how we get enough nutrients mostly dairy-free, but the short story is that there are many plant-based sources of all of the nutrients that milk provides.
Calcium: dried beans, dark leafy greens, oranges, almonds, and oatmeal
Potassium: bananas, potatoes, honeydew melon, lima beans
Protein: beans, grains/seeds like spelt, kamut, and quinoa
Vitamin K: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, dark leafy greens

Furthermore, research has shown that regular, weight-bearing exercise (like walking, dancing, jogging, and hiking) does more to make bones strong and decrease fracture risk than drinking cow's milk. (See links to research at the bottom of the post.)

The milk myth
Although cow's milk is a good source of calcium, our bodies have a difficult time absorbing it from pasteurized milk. In fact, research has shown that rates of bone fractures are actually lowest in Asian countries, where people consume the least amount of dairy, and highest in countries where people consume the most dairy, calcium, and animal protein.

The 12-year Harvard Nurses' Health Study followed more than 77,000 women and showed no effect of increased milk consumption on bone fracture risk. Research has shown that cow's milk can, ironically, actually leach the calcium from our bones instead of strengthening them.

What's bad about cow's milk?
Today's grocery store cow's milk is a super-processed food, not the natural drink it's made out to be. If you're not buying organic milk, then the cows producing your milk have been injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH), which is genetically engineered and has been shown to increase the levels of insulin-growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in humans, which is, in turn, linked to cancer. Cows are also injected with antibiotics, the overuse of which can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Just as human nursing mothers have to be careful about what passes through their bodies into their breast milk, synthetic hormones and antibiotics can pass through into cow's milk as well. Appetizing, right?

What's more, a surprisingly high number of the world's population suffers from some degree of lactose intolerance, which is a sensitivity to the sugar (lactose) in milk. It can result in nausea, cramps, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Even more dangerous are milk allergies, which are the second most common allergy in children and can be life-threatening.

Cow's milk is also high in cholesterol and saturated fat. And for those of you trying to avoid those issues with skim milk, about 55% of the calories in skim milk come from sugar (lactose)! Furthermore, nearly all of the cheese you eat is full-fat due to a significant taste and texture difference in reduced-fat cheese, so if you're drinking skim milk and eating regular cheese, you're not really reducing your fat intake that much.

Finally, although more research is needed, some scientists believe that there is a link between high calcium intake and increased risk of ovarian and prostate cancers.

If cow's milk isn't that great for us, then why are we taught to drink it?
Who do you think pushed the "It does a body good" and "Got milk?" campaigns that were ingrained into our minds years ago? If you guess the dairy industry, you're right. Of course they want us to drink milk!

What about alternative milks?
You really don't need alternative milks as a source of nutrition if you have a healthy diet, but if you like a glass of milk or need a milk substitute for a recipe, there are many alternatives, most of which are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D:
nut milks (almond, cashew, and hazelnut)- some are low fat (but read the labels carefully to avoid carrageenan, which is a controversial thickener); almond milk is one of the few milk alternatives that is naturally high in calcium
coconut milk- very creamy and high in calories and fat; pure coconut milk is useful for cooking but is not suitable for drinking (coconut milk beverages designed for drinking have added water)
rice milk- low fat but a little watery; this is the milk least likely to cause allergies
soy milk- a popular alternative, although some people try to avoid soy for various reasons; this milk is usually sweetened to avoid a beany flavor; soy milk contains fiber, which cow's milk lacks
hemp milk- high in omega-3s

What about growing children? Don't they need cow's milk?
Obviously, consult your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child's growth or nutrition, but, as you have already read, there are many plant-based sources of calcium, protein, and the vitamins that cow's milk provides. If a child is already eating a varied, healthy diet, then he or she should already be consuming enough calcium and protein from other sources.

So what are kids supposed to drink with each meal if they're not drinking cow's milk?
Water.

How do I replace dairy in my recipes?
I have been baking dairy-free for about four years and have always had good luck with it. I use unsweetened almond milk in all baked goods and haven't noticed any difference in the final baked product since giving up cow's milk. I don't cook many cream-based dishes because they tend to be extremely unhealthy, so I can't vouch for the use of almond milk in those (coconut milk would probably be a better alternative). As for cheese, there are dairy-free cheeses on the market, and many people enjoy them; I have not found one that I like, so when I need to go dairy-free, I just don't include cheese in a recipe. It's also worth taking a look at just how many dishes you're topping with cheese, which is high in saturated fat. We really shouldn't be eating cheese several times a day or even several times a week.

Am I supposed to give up all dairy? What's the bottom line?
Unless you are lactose-intolerant or have chosen to go dairy-free, you don't have to give up all dairy. In our family, we currently eat limited amounts of cheese and yogurt, both of which humans seem to be able to digest better than fluid cow's milk, and you'll see me occasionally post recipes containing dairy. But what our society needs to realize is that dairy is not necessary to have a healthy diet and that there are healthier plant-based sources of the same nutrients that cow's milk provides. So instead of handing our children bottles of milk at their first birthdays, setting out glasses of milk with each meal, and smothering everything we eat in cheese, maybe we should turn to the produce section for healthier sources of calcium and vitamins.

How can I learn more?
To learn more about some of the research done on milk consumption and bone density, read this article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

To read more about Harvard's research into cow's milk, click here and here.

To learn more about milk alternatives, read The Definitive Alternative Milk Guide.

To learn more about why animal-based protein sources are unhealthy, watch the documentary Forks Over Knives (available on Netflix).

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