Forget Milk. Got Broccoli?

You heard it from your mother, your doctor, and all those mustached-celebrities: drink your milk, it’s good for you. But is it? It turns out there’s a dark side to milk—and it’s not chocolate.

Milk and its associated dairy products—cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream—are implicated in a host of illnesses ranging from asthma and allergies to type 1 diabetes, cancer, and even osteoporosis, the disease it is touted to prevent.

Designed to double the birth weight of a baby calf in 47 days, cow’s milk has three times the amount of protein found in mother’s milk. The proteins, casein and whey, are the culprits that give milk its reputation as the most common food allergy. Reactions to these proteins can trigger hives, coughing, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea, and they can bring on migraine headaches as well as the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Milk proteins are also implicated in the onset of type 1 diabetes, causing the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise against giving cow’s milk to infants under the age of one year.

Millions of people suffer the effects of lactose intolerance, a natural part of the weaning process as the body slows and ceases production of the enzymes that digest milk sugar (lactose), causing gas, cramps and diarrhea. Humans, by the way, are the only species to continue drinking milk after being weaned.

Milk is also loaded in saturated fat and cholesterol, both major contributors to heart disease. Even the lower fat version (2%) gets more than 30 percent of calories from fat; and fat-free milk is loaded with sugar. Another problem with milk’s makeup are the naturally occurring hormones, not to mention the synthetic rBGH hormone injected into cows to make them produce even more milk. Both natural and synthetic hormones are suspected of playing a role in not only acne problems, but may help explain the increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancer among its dedicated consumers.

Milk and calcium are ingrained in us as synonymous with strong, healthy bones, but research in the last few decades is showing that milk’s role in bone health has been exaggerated. Dr. Amy Lanou, a nutritional professor at University of North Carolina, conducted an extensive, detailed analysis of some 1,200 studies. Her findings and conclusions are presented in Building Bone Vitality.

“One hundred forty-one studies over more than three decades involving more than five hundred thousand participants and lasting for up to twenty-two years simply make no case for the notion that milk, dairy, and calcium, even with vitamin D, offer anything approaching a workable solution for osteoporosis. Finally, it looks like milk and dairy might actually be part of the problem.”

It has long been known that countries which consume the most calcium have the highest rates of osteoporotic hip fractures. The finding is the opposite of what one would expect if you believe drinking milk and consuming calcium builds strong bones. This phenomenon is known as the calcium paradox, and it has perplexed scientists for years. In keeping with the findings, American women are among the world’s top consumers of calcium via dairy products—cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and milk—along with calcium supplements, and yet the United States has one of the highest hip fractures rates in the world; this in stark contrast to Asian and African countries where little calcium and dairy are consumed yet report low fracture rates.

Researchers now believe the bone loss of osteoporosis is not due to a calcium deficiency, but rather resorption, a process where the body leaches calcium out of the bones. Foods high in animal protein, such as meat, eggs and dairy create an acidic state in the blood; to return the blood to its ideal alkaline state, the body quickly draws calcium from the bones. While it is true milk is high in calcium, our bodies absorb only about a third of what is available, and the body is pulling more calcium out of the bones then milk can put in.

Additional studies show that calcium intake is not the only factor in bone health. The Harvard School of Public Health cites studies showing vitamin K plays an important role in the regulation and formation of healthy bones, along with weight-bearing exercise such as walking or jogging.

In Calcium & Milk – What’s Best for Your Bones and Health, HSPH recommends individuals “Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich non-dairy foods include leafy green vegetables and broccoli, both of which are also great sources of vitamin K, another key nutrient for bone health.”

It further suggests that getting one or more servings per day of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, dark green lettuce, collard greens, or kale should be enough to meet the daily recommended (calcium) target of 120 micrograms per day for men and 90 micrograms per day for women.

So clearly if you don’t Got Milk?, don’t get it. A better, healthier way to get calcium and build strong bones is consuming little or no meat, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and including walking in your daily regime.

Non-Dairy Alternatives

With all the health negatives stacked against milk, not to mention the harm it causes the environment or the inhumane treatment of animals at factory farms, is it any wonder that milk consumption has been steadily declining? Consumers today are choosing from a multitude of plant-based alternatives. Per capita consumption of milk has dropped two gallons in the last decade, while total sales of soy, almond, rice, and hemp milks, soared to $1.33 billion last year.

These dairy-free alternatives come in a variety of formulations—flavored, sweetened, unsweetened, low fat, non-fat and fortified. They vary in sweetness and texture and deciding which to choose is a matter of personal taste, nutritional needs and intended use. It’s best to experiment with different brands and varieties before deciding.

Almond milk’s popularity is growing, posting the biggest dollar sales gain last year. It has a sweet, nutty flavor, and is a good source of unsaturated fats and omega fatty acids. It has high levels of iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc as well as vitamin A and vitamin E. It’s great for cereals, creamy drinks and dessert cooking.

Soy milk is a long time staple among alternatives milk. With about the same amount of protein (vegetarian) as cow’s milk, it is often enriched with calcium; has a slightly thicker consistency, and is a great all around milk substitute.

Hemp milk is relatively new to the scene. It is a great source of protein (vegetarian) and omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids, calcium, and phosphorous, and is commonly fortified with other vitamins and minerals; a great all around milk substitute.

Rice milk tends to be sweet with a thin consistency. It typically contains a lot of sweeteners, and is often fortified with calcium or vitamin D; good for dessert cooking.

Oat milk is high in fiber, contains vitamin E, and folic acid; it’s also rich in phytochemicals, which help fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Author’s Note: This appeared in the May/June issue of Life Is Good Magazine.