Cow’s milk is a daily staple food for many people — and has been for millennia. While it’s still a popular food, recent studies suggest milk may have harmful effects on the body. Other research, however, points out the health benefits of dairy.

So, what’s the truth? Read on to learn about the pros and cons of milk, as well as some alternatives you may want to consider if you can’t tolerate milk or choose not to drink it.

Milk is considered a whole food. It provides 18 out of 22 essential nutrients. It contains more calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and protein per calorie than any other food in a typical diet:

NutrientAmount per 244 gPercentage of Recommended Daily Amount (RDA)
Calcium276 mg28%
Folate 12 mcg 3%
Magnesium24 mg 7%
Phosphorus205 mg 24%
Potassium322 mg 10%
Vitamin A112 mcg15%
Vitamin B-121.10 mcg 18%
Zinc 0.90 mg 11%
Protein6 to 7 g (casein and whey)14%

Milk also provides:

  • iron
  • selenium
  • vitamin B-6
  • vitamin E
  • vitamin K
  • niacin
  • thiamin
  • riboflavin

Fat content varies. Whole milk contains more fats than other types:

Appetite control

Drinking milk hasn’t been linked to weight gain or obesity. While dairy is also not associated with weight loss, it may help curb appetite. A small 2013 study showed that dairy helped people feel fuller and reduced how much fat they ate overall.

Bone development

Milk helps improve weight and bone density in children. It also reduces the risk of childhood fractures. Research shows that pregnant women who ate plenty of dairy- and calcium-rich foods had babies with better bone growth and mass.

Additionally, adding more dairy to the diet of preteen girls was found to be better for bone health than giving them calcium supplements. Milk also provides proteins that are necessary to build and maintain healthy bones, teeth, and muscle. A cup of milk provides around 6 to 7 grams of casein and whey proteins.

Bone and dental health

A glass of milk contains almost 30 percent of the daily requirement of calcium for adults. Milk also contains potassium and magnesium. These minerals are important for healthy bones and teeth.

Dairy provides almost 50 percent of the calcium in a typical diet. Dairy products are also the main source of how people get their daily intake of calcium worldwide.

Most milk has added vitamin D. A glass of fortified milk contains almost 30 percent of the recommended daily amount. Vitamin D is needed to balance calcium and phosphorus in the body.

Milk may also help prevent cavities. Research showed that getting more dairy, calcium, and vitamin D helped reduce dental plaque in older adults.

Diabetes prevention

Type 2 diabetes affects how your body burns food for energy. Diabetes can also increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.

Several studies have found that whey protein in milk may help prevent type 2 diabetes in adults. This may be because milk proteins improve your blood sugar balance.

Heart health

Milk fat may help raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol. It helps prevent heart disease and stroke.

Additionally, milk is a good source of potassium. This mineral helps balance blood pressure.

Cows that are pastured or grass-fed make milk with more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid. These fats help protect heart and blood vessel health.

Acne

A study found that teenagers with acne drank higher amounts of low-fat or skim milk. Adult acne may also be triggered by dairy. Other studies linked this skin condition to skim and low-fat milk, but not to whole milk or cheese. This may be due to carbohydrates and whey protein in milk.

Other skin conditions

Eczema is worsened by some foods, including milk and dairy.

A study found that pregnant and breastfeeding women who added milk and a probiotic to their diet reduced their child’s risk of eczema and other food-related allergic reactions. Dairy may also be a trigger food for some adults with rosacea.

Allergies

More than 5 percent of children have a milk allergy, estimate some experts. It can cause skin reactions, such as eczema, and gut symptoms like colic, constipation, and diarrhea. Other serious reactions include:

  • anaphylaxis
  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing
  • bloody stool

Children may grow out of a milk allergy. Adults can also develop a milk allergy. Antibiotics given to dairy cows may also be linked to milk allergies.

Bone fractures

Drinking three or more glasses of milk a day may increase the risk of bone fractures in women. Research found that this may be due to sugars called lactose and galactose in milk. However, the study did explain that further research will be needed before dietary recommendations should be made.

Another study showed that bone fractures in elderly adults due to osteoporosis are highest in areas that consume more dairy, animal protein, and calcium.

Cancers

Excess calcium from milk and other foods may increase the risk of prostate cancer. Milk sugars may be linked to a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer.

Milk from cows given growth hormones contains higher levels of a chemical that may increase the risk of some cancers. More studies are needed on the long-term effects of these hormones and on antibiotics given to dairy cows.

Lactose intolerance

Cow’s milk has a higher amount of lactose than milk from other animals. Up to 75 percent of the world’s population has some form of lactose intolerance, estimates a 2015 review. Most people with this condition can safely add small amounts dairy to their diet.

Cow’s milk alternatives for infants and toddlers with milk protein allergies include:

TypePros Cons
BreastfeedingBest source of nutritionTypically only available for first 4 to 6 months of life; Not all women can breastfeed
Hypoallergenic formulas Produced with enzymes to break down milk proteins Processing may damage other nutrients
Amino acid formulas Least likely to cause an allergic reactionProcessing may damage other nutrients
Soy-based formulasFortified to be nutritionally completeChildren may also develop allergy to soy

Plant- and nut-based milks suitable for individuals who are lactose intolerant or vegan include:

TypePros Cons
Soy milkContains similar amount of proteins; Half the carbs and fatsContains plant estrogens and hormones
Almond milkLow fat; High calcium; High vitamin ELow protein; Contains phytic acid (hinders mineral absorption)
Coconut milkLow calories; Low carbohydrates; Half the fatNo protein; High saturated fats
Oat milkLower in fat; High fiberHigh carbohydrates; Low protein
Cashew milkLow calories and fatLow protein; Fewer nutrients
Hemp milkLow calories; Low carbohydrates; High essential fatty acidsLow protein
Rice milkLow fatLow protein; High carbohydrates; Low nutrients
Quinoa milkLow fat; Low calories; Low carbohydratesLow protein

Milk is naturally packed with essential nutrients in a convenient and accessible form. Drinking milk is particularly important for children and may help you and your child maintain good health.

Milk nutrition varies. Milk from grass-fed or pastured cows provides more beneficial fats and higher amounts of some vitamins.

More research is needed on the amount of milk that’s most beneficial and the effects of antibiotics and artificial hormones given to dairy cows.

It’s best to choose organic milk from cows that are free of growth hormones. Milk alternatives can also be part of a healthy, balanced diet.