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Why We Drink Milk

Drinking cow’s milk is like taking a liquid nutritional supplement. It’s a concentrated source of calcium and a rich source of protein, riboflavin, potassium, vitamin B12, and other vitamins and minerals. It’s the perfect food for transforming a 75-pound calf into a half-ton cow in a matter of months. Perhaps as a result, although cow’s milk is meant for cows, humans have claimed it as a dietary pillar for generations.

Despite all the good nutrients it provides, milk also includes some things humans need to limit in their diets, such as sodium and saturated fat. Milk also is low or devoid in other necessary substances, such as dietary fiber, iron, and some of the beneficial phytochemicals (substances found in foods of plant origin, such as broccoli and beans).

For those who can digest cow’s milk, a little bit of nonfat or low-fat milk in the diet is probably fine and provides a dose of nutrition. Too much, though, puts you at risk for displacing calories from foods that can provide other much-needed nutrients not found in cow’s milk. Getting the balance right can be a challenge when you’re raised in a cow’s milk–happy culture.

Calcium is the one nutrient most associated with milk. When you hear recommendations to drink cow’s milk, it’s primarily because, where calcium is concerned, it’s the mother lode. Health professionals care about how much calcium you consume because it’s so vital to your health. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet — or your body can’t hang on to the calcium you already have — you may develop osteoporosis, a condition in which your bones become porous and brittle, allowing them to break easily.

Government guidelines for healthful eating have for many years perpetuated the idea that milk is a part of a balanced diet. You may remember the Basic Four Food Groups, which started as an industry marketing tool and was later adopted as a government meal-planning guide. Everyone was advised to eat foods from these four groups every day in order to achieve a so-called balanced diet.

Doctors and nutritionists have long had people flocking to cow’s milk to keep up their calcium levels. The calcium in cow’s milk — and its relationship with bone health — is why milk has been given its status as a singular food group in dietary guidance tools. But bone health depends on far more than the amount of calcium in your diet.

Cow’s milk is still identified as a recommended food group in the U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPyramid food guide. However, the guide now advises choosing only nonfat and low-fat varieties of milk, yogurt, and cheese. After all, cow’s milk is a food with nutritional pros and cons when consumed by humans.

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