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.

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 mcg12.5%
Vitamin B-121.10 mcg 18%
Zinc 0.90 mg 11%
Protein7 to 8 g (casein and whey)16%

Milk also provides:

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

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

  • saturated fats: 4.5 grams
  • unsaturated fats: 2.5 grams
  • cholesterol: 24 milligrams

Appetite control

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

Some studies have shown that full fat dairy intake is associated with lower body weight. And some have shown that dairy intake in general may prevent weight gain.

Bone development

Milk may help improve weight and bone density in children, according to a 2016 study. It also reduces the risk of childhood fractures.

Research shows that pregnant women who ate a healthy diet that included plenty of dairy- and calcium-rich foods had children with better bone growth and mass compared to women who followed less healthy diets.

Milk also provides proteins that are necessary to build and maintain healthy bones, teeth, and muscle. A cup of milk provides around 7 to 8 grams of casein and whey proteins.

Bone and dental health

A cup 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 American diet.

Most milk has added vitamin D. A cup of fortified milk contains almost 30 percent of the recommended daily amount. Vitamin D is an important vitamin that plays many roles in the body, including promoting calcium absorption and bone mineralization.

Diabetes prevention

Type 2 diabetes is a disease characterized by high blood sugar levels. Diabetes can increase your risk for:

Several studies have found that drinking 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 HDL (good) cholesterol. Having healthy HDL cholesterol levels may prevent heart disease and stroke.

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

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

Acne

A 2016 study found that teenagers with acne drank higher amounts of low fat or skim milk. Dairy may also trigger adult acne.

Other studies have linked acne to skim and low fat milk. This may be due to milk’s influence on certain hormones, including insulin and IGF-1.

More research is needed to explore the diet-acne connection.

Other skin conditions

Some foods may worsen eczema, including milk and dairy, according to a clinical review.

However, a 2018 study found that pregnant and breastfeeding women who added a probiotic to their diet reduced their child’s risk for eczema and other food related allergic reactions.

Dairy may also be a trigger food for some adults with rosacea. On the other hand, a recent study suggests that dairy may actually have a positive effect on rosacea.

Allergies

Up to 5 percent of children have a milk allergy, estimate some experts. It can cause skin reactions, such as eczema, and gut symptoms like:

Other serious reactions include:

Children may grow out of a milk allergy. Adults can also develop a milk allergy.

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 a sugar called D-galactose in milk. However, the study did explain that further research is needed before dietary recommendations are made.

Another study showed that bone fractures in older 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.

Lactose intolerance

Cow’s milk has a higher amount of lactose than milk from other animals. A 2015 review estimates 65 to 70 percent of the world’s population has some form of lactose intolerance. Most people with this condition can safely add small amounts of dairy to their diet.

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

TypePros Cons
BreastfeedingBest source of nutritionNot 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 completeSome may 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 fats of whole milkContains plant estrogens and hormones
Almond milkLow fat; high calcium (if enriched); high vitamin ELow protein; contains phytic acid (hinders mineral absorption)
Coconut milkLow calories and 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 and carbohydrates; high essential fatty acidsLow protein (though more than other plant based milks)
Rice milkLow fatLow protein and nutrients; high carbohydrates
Quinoa milkLow fat, calories, and carbohydratesLow protein

Milk is naturally packed with essential nutrients in a convenient and accessible form. Drinking milk is particularly important for children. It 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.