Sports man with towel drinking milk isolated on a white background.

The Great Debate

If milk is good for babies, why wouldn’t it be good for us? While there are plenty of points that get brought up in the “is dairy good for you?” debate, this might be one of the most commonly-used ones.

If you’re like most people in the U.S., you probably have quite a bit of dairy in your diet. According to a food consumption census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American eats about 1996 pounds (or close to one ton) of dairy every year.

It’s been a staple in the American diet for as long as most people can remember. And yet, over the last few years, there has been a noticeable uptick in the consumption of dairy alternatives (soy, almond, and rice being the most recognizable alternative milks of the group).

So, why the sudden dissent? What could possibly be wrong with a food that we’ve been consuming for hundreds of years?

All the Nutrients, None of the Drawbacks!

No matter what your opinion of dairy is, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods that the average American has in their diet. If we’re being completely honest, you’d be hard pressed to find another food group that brings so much to the table (pun intended).

Let’s start with your typical glass of milk. At a glance, the nutritional label reads like a dietary supplement: plenty of calcium, tons of Vitamin D, and even some potassium. Of course, we can’t forget about the ridiculous amount of protein inside of a glass of milk.

And that’s the point: milk (and dairy in general) is about more than just getting certain nutrients in your body. A substance this nutrient-dense is more than the sum of its parts. When it comes to milk, you’re getting just the right combination of calcium, protein, magnesium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and zinc. When these ingredients are combined, your body can build stronger bones, stronger muscles, and even reduce your risk of high blood pressure.

Dairy and Insulin: The Keys to Nutrient Absorption

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better: Aside from handling a variety of your micronutrient needs, dairy also happens to be incredibly insulinogenic, meaning it promotes the production and release of insulin from the pancreas. Let’s get one thing out of the way: having constantly-elevated insulin levels is rarely ever a good idea (something we hope most of you are aware of).

That being said, your body’s insulin response to milk can be a pretty effective way to raise your insulin levels just long enough to promote your body’s absorption of protein and glycogen. That’s right: not only does milk have protein in it, it actually makes it easier for your body to turn that protein into fuel and building materials for your cells.

Still not satisfied? Raising your insulin levels makes it easier for your body to absorb carbs, which in turn can replenish those glycogen stores. Dairy does more than just provide you with the protein to rebuild your muscles… it gives you back the energy you lost too!

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Nobody Said it was Perfect

Criticizing milk in the U.S. is always a touchy subject. It’s been a part of the diet for such a long time that it might as well be sacred. Dairy clearly has a ton of benefits, there’s no denying it. Still, there are plenty of people that have started avoiding it, instead opting for milk alternatives. And with good reason!

See, there’s a portion of the population that has what’s known as “lactose intolerance” (or sensitivity, if you have a mild case). In its simplest terms, it’s having a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Believe it or not, around 65% of people suffer from this condition. Most people just aren’t really aware of their conditions because they been consuming dairy their whole lives and don’t know what life would be like without it.

But how could this happen? We consume milk for the first few years of our lives and it helps our bodies grow, doesn’t it? Well, there’s the issue. Milk is great… if you’re a baby. When you’re a baby, your body produces an enzyme called lactase. That enzyme helps you break down your mother’s milk properly and makes milk your best bet for growing big and strong.

But, once you reach the ages of 3-5, your body stops producing lactase. You’re supposed to be eating solid food anyway, so why would your body keep producing it? Without that enzyme, your body can’t properly break dairy down anymore. Eventually, that leads to anything from something as simple digestive issues to something as serious as anemia.    

There’s no denying that the nutrients in dairy are crucial. If you’re one of the 65% of the world that shouldn’t be consuming it, you might need to find something else to put in your cereal. But if you don’t want to give up on dairy just yet, there are options out there that might work for you, like lactase capsules and lactose-free milk. So you might still be able to have your cake and eat it, too. Or drink it, in this case.