Why do you drink milk? Odds are, it’s because you grew up drinking milk at home and in school, where you were taught that it’s loaded with calcium, which helped your bones grow big and strong. Of course, kale, beans, and figs all have oodles of calcium, too–but unlike dairy, they don’t have millions of dollars in marketing budgets to ensure that families everywhere believe they’re essential for human development. Milk, on the other hand, has a a powerful lobbying effort that guarantees if we all know only one thing about dairy, it’s that it’s calcium-rich. If you still think “milk = calcium” as a grown-up, you may not be “doing the body good,” but you are doing the National Dairy Council proud.
The fact is, you didn’t just get a little carton of milk on your lunch tray because it’s the most sustainable, easily-digested, rich source of calcium–it isn’t. You drank it, and were taught about it, because the National Dairy Council has close ties to the FDA and USDA, who decide what to serve in schools as part of a “healthy” diet. The prevalence of milk may have started as a way to deliver calories and nutrients, but the fact is, dairy just isn’t the be-all, end-all of calcium that the NDC would like us to believe it is. Does it deliver calcium, which is important for growing children? Yes. Are there better, more nutritious, more eco-friendly ways to get it? Definitely.
Milk is heavily subsidized by the government, which means that both the government and the dairy council have a vested interest in getting people to associate milk with a healthy diet. It also means the Dairy Council has a lot of sway over what people learn. Learning that milk is part of a balanced diet is part of every school kid’s curriculum, whether it’s true or not.
But in the past decade, there have been dozens of salient studies about milk–which is, keep in mind, meant for baby cows to drink, not human adults and children. They’ve investigated how it’s absorbed, how it works in the body, and what it’s really good for. And in the end, nearly all have concluded that, regardless of what the Dairy Council says, milk simply isn’t the best source of calcium. There’s just too much else in it.
Milk and other dairy products contain lots of retinol (vitamin A, which can decrease bone density), natural sugar in the form of lactose (which is difficult for the body to break down) and saturated fat, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease. And because of added growth hormones and other additives which are fed to dairy cows to spur production, some studies have indicated a link between milk and cancer.
Okra, tahini paste, nuts, beans, and leafy vegetables can all potentially deliver as much calcium as an eight-ounce glass of milk, without those risks. They also deliver similar, if not better, nutritional rewards.
Because these calcium claims have been so widely questioned in the last few years (Forks Over Knives was one widely-viewed critic, but there are loads of others), the Dairy Council has recently switched campaigns, not only repping milk’s calcium, but also its protein content. However, the amount of protein in an 8-ounce glass of milk is still less than that of a serving of nuts, whole grains, or even some veggies. Milk, it seems, is grasping at nutritional straws.
The calcium-rich representation of dairy milk isn’t an evil ploy by the government to fatten up kids and trick adults. But milk and other dairy-based foods are heavily subsidized, cleverly-advertised products that have done what other questionable foods (including soda and Nutella) have done for years–marketed themselves as “healthy,” based on just a few potentially beneficial ingredients. Dairy can still be part of a well-rounded, balanced diet, just like you were taught in school. But when it comes to calcium, there are other foods that just do the body better.
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