Milk has long been extolled as a healthy drink, great for bone-building and preventing osteoporosis. “Drink your milk,” your parents repeatedly told you at the dinner table as a child, and many of us have carried these teachings into adulthood. But are milk’s health benefits grossly overstated? According to a groundbreaking new study, not only is milk not as healthy as we are lead to believe, it’s also linked with early mortality and, ironically, bone loss in older adults.
In the study, researchers in Sweden examined the milk consumption habits of over 60,000 women and 40,000 men. Scientists followed the subjects for a period of over 20 to 30 years and catalogued their self-reported food consumption patterns. What they found was startling: Heavy milk drinkers were more likely to die early than their non-milk drinking counterparts from causes such as cancer or heart disease, and furthermore, high milk intake was associated with a higher fracture incidence in women. In fact, bone fractures in general increased by 16 percent amongst milk drinkers, and hip fractures shot up a stunning 60 percent compared to women who did not drink milk as frequently.
So what gives? Why is milk seemingly so dangerous? According to the study, the researchers identified one key ingredient in milk, D-galactose, as deleterious to human health.
“Even a low dose of D-galactose induces changes that resemble natural aging in animals, including shortened life span caused by oxidative stress damage, chronic inflammation, neurodegeneration, decreased immune response, and gene transcriptional changes,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in the October 2014 version of The British Medical Journal.
This isn’t the first time that the healthfulness of milk has been called into question. In 2010, influential research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found an association between dairy consumption and acne. Additionally, lactose intolerance is rampant in our culture, affecting around 30 to 50 million American adults over the age of 20, leading some health experts to speculate that humans were never intended to drink cow’s milk in the first place. Additionally, concerns have been raised over the hormone levels found in milk products, including rGBH, a genetically engineered artificial hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production, which has been linked to earlier onset of puberty in young females.
Milk has long been recommended as part of a well-balanced diet, so for milk to be linked with cancer and heart disease certainly comes as a shock. What next…will we discover that carrots are the dietary equivalent of Twinkies?
In milk’s defense, it’s important to take these preliminary findings with a grain of salt. As with most research studies, correlation does not prove causation. Perhaps, it’s simply that people with existing health conditions or genetic predispositions (for example, a woman with a family history of osteoporosis) tend to drink more milk because they believe it will confer special health benefits. Mary Schooling, a professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, agrees.
“We can’t draw conclusions at this point,” she said. “We need a study involving people who genetically can and can’t digest milk easily, and compare whether those who can digest milk have a difference in cardiovascular disease, death and fractures from those who can’t.”
In the meantime, it might be wise to adhere to the adage, “Everything in moderation.” If you enjoy milk, there’s no reason to stop drinking it until further research suggests otherwise. If you’re concerned about the side effects of milk, then you might consider exploring some dairy-free milk alternatives, such as almond milk, hemp milk, or soy milk.