Is milk good for you?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I always thought of milk as a healthy drink, but lately I’ve been hearing the opposite. Is milk good for adults or not?

DEAR READER:

When I was a kid, my mother encouraged me to drink lots of milk. I rarely drink milk these days, except when I eat cereal. As with most things, there are both benefits and risks.

The benefits: Milk is a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D (in the United States, most milk is fortified with vitamin D). An 8-ounce serving of milk has approximately 8 to 9 grams of protein, 300 milligrams of calcium and 100 IU of vitamin D. Growing kids need it, for sure. And it’s one way for adults to meet the recommended daily requirements for protein, calcium and vitamin D.

However, there are also risks to making milk your favorite beverage, especially if it’s whole milk:

  • Excess fat and calories. An 8-ounce serving of whole milk has 8 grams of fat (more than half of which are unhealthy saturated fat) and 150 calories.
  • Dangerously high blood calcium levels. People who drink a lot of milk and also consume excessive amounts of calcium-containing antacids or high-calcium foods are at risk for high blood calcium levels. This can occasionally lead to kidney stones and other health problems. Back in the days when we didn’t know that ulcers were caused by an easily treatable bacterial infection, many people had ulcers — and those people often drank a lot of milk and swallowed a lot of antacids. I saw several patients early in my career who developed dangerously high calcium levels. Such patients can develop brain, kidney and heart trouble.
  • Possible increased risk of certain diseases. There is some evidence that high dairy intake may be associated with prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Also, although it occurs less often in adults than in children, people can be allergic to milk. This can cause many different symptoms, ranging from stomach trouble to eczema.

Some people have a condition called lactase deficiency. When they drink milk or eat other dairy products, they get abdominal pains, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting and other unpleasant symptoms.

The bottom line is “all things in moderation.” If you like milk — or if you’re just swayed by the “Got Milk?” ads — stick with low-fat or nonfat varieties. Whole milk has about 3 percent fat. Skim milk has essentially no fat.

Maybe you’ve tried lower-fat milks and don’t like the taste. That’s what happened when I was introduced to skim milk. And it’s still true: I can’t stand it.

But when I tried 2 percent milk, I thought it tasted pretty good. So after using that for several months on cereal, I switched to 1 percent milk — and that tasted pretty good, too. That’s what I use now.