Are milk and milk products a crucial food for every single athlete or are they the bone-leaching, artery clogging, franken-food of 2015 that many make them out to be? [Insert ominous emoji that conveys overt sarcasm and a hint of brashness here]
PART I: Main Points
Milk from cows contains a variety of nutrients that are important for healthy growth and development, as well as optimal performance as a student-athlete, including: protein, fat, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
While achieving sufficient intakes of some of these nutrients is much less likely if you do not consume milk, it is possible to consume sufficient amounts of these nutrients from foods without drinking milk.
While there are some emerging trends that suggest a correlation between milk intake and negative health outcomes such as reduced bone health in post-menopausal women and older men, there is not nearly enough evidence to topple the current support for the beneficial impacts of milk consumption in adolescent athletes. The minor anti- and pro-inflammatory effects (yes, both) of milk on your body are negligible when it comes to the impact of the rest of your diet and lifestyle.
So, is milk good or bad?.. A quick rant:
The impact on health of a specific food depends on various factors – the rest of your diet, age, gender, medical history, lifestyle, activity, the list goes on – so we all have to stop labeling foods as either good or bad; it just doesn’t work that way. Abundant calcium intake without vitamin K from leafy green vegetables and beans, for instance, may increase your risk of artery calcification (an indicator of heart disease) and increase your bone size without increasing bone strength. Substantial vitamin K intake for individuals with certain blood clotting disorders, however, can be deadly. While these are some extreme examples, you can see that a good or bad food depends very much on the individual and the rest of their diet. Read more on this topic here + an infographic: http://www.mariespano.com/good-food-bad-food/
If you enjoy milk, consume it without worry (up to 32oz per day) as part of a performance-powering diet that emphasizes a variety of other lean proteins and leafy greens and colorful vegetables. At this amount, it won’t crowd out your intake and absorption of other important nutrients.
Trying to gain strength? 2% or whole milk are likely beneficial for increasing total calorie intake as well as lean mass gains. Trying to reduce body fat? Non-fat or 1%-fat dairy products are the way to go. Sure, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but this is an easy rule of thumb.
Consider reaching for Greek yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, sour cream, or aged cheeses instead of milk at least once per day to get a more easily utilized form of dairy that comes packed with important probiotics.
A quick note:
If you are lactose intolerant and can’t drink milk due to bloating and other digestive issues, you may still tolerate other forms of dairy where the lactose has been mostly removed through the fermentation process – Greek yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, sour cream – especially those marked 99% lactose free or lactose free. Or, you may not.
Go for organic and grass-fed milk and dairy products as much as budget and availability allows. The increased exposure to hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals is not helping your immune system, your endocrine system, or your performance. I’ve now seen multiple cases first hand (and heard of many more from colleagues) of individuals who don’t tolerate conventional milk (symptoms include gas, bloating, diarrhea, acne), but do just fine with organic milk. It could be a simple aberration, or it could be indicative of something wacky that’s going on in many more people at sub-clinical levels that is not consciously felt.
If you don’t enjoy milk or other dairy products, can’t drink it, or choose not to, don’t fret: you’re not missing out on anything you can’t get from other foods. It will be important for you to emphasize: rich sources of calcium and Vitamin A like green and other colorful vegetables, soy products including tofu or edamame, canned salmon, fortified orange juice, beans, sweet potato, nuts, and/or seeds; quality sources of magnesium such as whole grains and dark, leafy green vegetables; strong sources of zinc such as lean protein, beans, and whole grains; Vitamin D by getting outside, eating plenty of fish and mushrooms, or taking a supplement.
Beware of substitute milk products - soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, etc. These are their own kind of food products. They can be a part of a healthy diet, but they are not nutritionally the same as cow's milk. They are often much lower in protein and certain vitamins & minerals... which changes how they should be incorporated into your diet. Additionally, many of these products are high in added thickeners and other chemicals to make them taste more like cow's milk. Read those labels!
Food for thought: What if soy milk is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish?
Don’t get caught up in the hype and remember that your needs/priorities are very different than those of non-athletes, adults, the opposite sex, and those who are much older than you… in other words, the population that most of the wild recommendations these days are geared towards. Get your information from an expert in the field who is looking out for you as an individual, not someone who is trying to sell you on something or summarizing a blog article they just read.
A graphic that sums it all up (courtesy of PhD Comics)...
Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets for the Professional. National Institute of Health.
Dror DK, et al. Dairy product intake in children and adolescents in developed countries: trends, nutritional contribution, and a review of association with health outcomes. Nutr Rev. 2014 Feb;72(2):68-81.
Antonio J, et al. Essentials of Sports Nutrition & Supplements. 1st ed; 2008.
Golden NH, et al. Optimizing bone health in children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2014 Oct;134(4):e1229-43.
Hurley WL, et al. Perspectives on Immunoglobulins in Colostrum and Milk. Nutrients. 2011 Apr; 3(4): 442–474.
Linus Pauling Institute. Oregan State University. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu
Navarro F, et al. Are 'leaky gut' and behavior associated with gluten and dairy containing diet in children with autism spectrum disorders? Nutr Neurosci. 2015 May;18(4):177-85.
Nicklas TA. Calcium intake trends and health consequences from childhood through adulthood. J Am Coll Nutr. 2003 Oct;22(5):340-56.
Nicklas TA, et al. The role of dairy in meeting the recommendations for shortfall nutrients in the American diet. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Feb;28 Suppl 1:73S-81S.
Volek JS, et al. Increasing fluid milk favorably affects bone mineral density responses to resistance training in adolescent boys. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Oct;103(10):1353-6.