Home Debunking The Myths Exactly How Does Milk Do A Body Good?

Exactly How Does Milk Do A Body Good?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

How healthy is milk?I have a bit of a penchant for talking about food myths. Mainly because, well, a lot of what our families have learned over the years about our relationships with food has come from… well, commercials.

And logically, what company is going to pay millions of dollars for a little ad that will turn people off from purchasing their product?

Just like the commercials for “high fructose corn syrup” a few years back (and the accompanying websites) trying to educate the public on what the concoction doesn’t do to you. Give the people a reason to be comfortable with the way of life they have now (one full of products laden with an allegedly harmful chemical), and they won’t raise hell. I work in marketing. I get it.

Milk is the same way. Tell the elderly that they need milk to help them prevent osteoporosis (essentially, your bones breaking into a few pieces.) Start telling women who, on average, are at least 4 inches wider than they were several decades ago that milk will help them develop and maintain a slimmer figure, and they’ll jump to snatch the stuff off the shelves. Give people a reason to feel good about something that’s already in their lives, and they’ll keep doing it. Give ’em a reason to feel pressure about doing it more – and make it easy – and they’ll keep at it. Easy peasy.

Even though I know this, I was surprised by the faith I have in milk… and how shaken I was by this article discussing how, apparently, 60% of adults cannot digest milk properly. What?

From USA Today:

Instead, people who are lactose intolerant can’t digest the main sugar —lactose— found in milk. In normal humans, the enzyme that does so —lactase— stops being produced when the person is between two and five years old. The undigested sugars end up in the colon, where they begin to ferment, producing gas that can cause cramping, bloating, nausea, flatulence and diarrhea.

If you’re American or European it’s hard to realize this, but being able to digest milk as an adult is one weird genetic adaptation.

It’s not normal. Somewhat less than 40% of people in the world retain the ability to digest lactose after childhood. The numbers are often given as close to 0% of Native Americans, 5% of Asians, 25% of African and Caribbean peoples, 50% of Mediterranean peoples and 90% of northern Europeans. Sweden has one of the world’s highest percentages of lactase tolerant people.

Being able to digest milk is so strange that scientists say we shouldn’t really call lactose intolerance a disease, because that presumes it’s abnormal. Instead, they call it lactase persistence, indicating what’s really weird is the ability to continue to drink milk.

So, what does that mean? It means a few things, really. I’ll at least tell you what came in my head after reading this article.

  1. Firstly, if a majority of adults cannot digest milk, how many of us are drinking milk anyway and not being mindful of any digestive problems?
  2. Secondly, how many of us are allowing the marketing to rule our lives? How many of us are well aware of the digestive issues that we experience due to milk and ignore those messages because “milk is so good for you, is so vital to your well-being, and everyone is drinking it?” In other words, how many of us just assume blindly that since everyone else is drinking milk and they don’t seem to be thwarted by whatever these pains are, that it’s just “normal?”
  3. Lastly, how accurate are the studies that the dairy industry has been using to validate their claims? If anything, I know that scientists can put together a perfect study complete with damaging results. I also know how easy it is to turn that data and spin it on behalf of my company. Taking it a step further, I ALSO know that I can get pretty bold with my “spin” because the average person doesn’t go checking behind commercials or reading the fine print.

So, really… I can’t help but wonder. Did I get duped by phenomenal marketing? Because although I switched over to rice milk a long time ago, I still keep dairy in my diet because its healthy (more like, it’s because I’m in love with sharp cheddar, but that’s beside the point.) But if I can let it go, I’m on it.

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LaToya October 3, 2010 - 1:41 PM

Thank you for this. I’ve been somewhat concerned about my lack of dairy. I am very lactose intolerant, and have tried to get enough soy milk and calcium supplements to replace the calcium from the all of the dairy I’m supposed to be getting. I’ve always been fearful I wasn’t getting enough because it wasn’t coming from real dairy products. Needless to say I’m breathing a little easier after reading this.

Danielle June 4, 2011 - 10:46 AM

Hey latoya- don’t forget that green leafy veggies are really rich in calcium too! (bok choy, collards, spinach, mustard greens). Granted I know we don’t always eat enough so we require vitamin supplements.
I’ve found that I am sneaking handfuls of spinach into a lot more things- eg i made spaghetti and added some at the end for it to wilt.

keke January 6, 2011 - 1:58 PM


I am new to your website and I have been browsing on so many of your blog posts. I think its awesome and just what I need. I am in the beginning stages of training for a half marathon and I am also trying to lose about 80lbs. So this website will be a great resource for me when I need some guidance and a little motivation and inspiration when times get rough.

This particular article hits home. I realized some time ago that I have an issue digesting dairy, particularly milk. I had so many digestive problems but I didn’t want to break away from milk because I was sold on the health benefits and I just happen to love milk anyway. I have recently switched to using soy milk but I have been reading that soy milk can have adverse health effects as well ( this is something that I do need to research more).

But you have switched to rice milk, is that a healthier option? Do you drink soy milk at all?

Once again, I love your blog. This is such an inspiration. I am at the beginning of my journey, day 2 to be exact and I have made a firm decision to cut out fast food from my daily diet. My health will thank me and so will my pockets. I just want to thank you for sharing your advice and your story. It makes my journey feel possible.

Jem June 4, 2011 - 4:31 PM

My main issue is overprocessed-ness. Which is why I avoid fake milks and go for the real thing (organic, and I’m ok with pasteurization and homogenization).

I’m in the 24% of African Americans who can digest milk without problems….but I think you bring up a good point.

Zee June 5, 2011 - 1:34 PM

Nice post.
Makes me wonder about how powerful ideas about food can be (with the beneft of advertising)- to the degree that people are willing to ignore the evidence of their bodies’ complaints because “the dairy industry or surgeon general said…”

Blair June 18, 2011 - 4:15 PM

But what about the issue of bone loss, that is very real. My mother’s spine has a giant sideways curve in it.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 18, 2011 - 9:18 PM

Bone loss is VERY real, but there are TONS of vegetables that have more grams of calcium per serving than milk… and without all the excessive chemicals. There’s a great post out there about this, I’ll have to share a chunk of it.

Biolobri June 29, 2011 - 2:48 PM

I’m working with a colleague on writing a paper about dairy & bone health (I work in research). While there are a lot of other sources of calcium, the bioavailability is very variable and generally MUCH less for plant based calcium sources (despite them having high levels of calcium). While I am in the early stages of my literature review, thus far it looks like without a doubt, dairy (yogurt especially, and milk, but not cheese.. and definitely not cream) is the best way to absorb calcium, have higher bone density, and prevent fracture (these 3 endpoints were analyzed as separate measures, so we’re not just throwing out assumptions here).

Erika Nicole Kendall June 29, 2011 - 3:06 PM

I also look forward to your study regarding ALL the other cultures who don’t rely so heavily on dairy and also don’t suffer the same problems that we do here in America.

Starry October 21, 2011 - 8:57 AM

Indians have long been recognised as having very, very low tolerance to lactose. Interestingly though, Indians (including myself and my family) include a fair old amount of yoghurt in our diets – very little milk, unless it is cooked, and even that is very occasional. This has far less lactose than plain milk. Just goes to show how peoples adapt naturally. When I went to India recently, I was surprised to find that the majority of people with whom I came into contact drank buffalo milk and used this milk to make their yoghurt and butter and to cook with. In the West, people with lactose intolerance are increasingly finding that drinking buffalo or goats milk is okay for them.

Deandra June 18, 2011 - 4:22 PM

I use almond milk and that has seemed to help. I am really good friends with a vegan and he is constantly telling me that milk from a cow is poison.

Elle June 18, 2011 - 4:27 PM

I’m so glad you touch on this. It’s actually a little known fact that HUMANS are not suppose to digest milk after a certain age, and we definitely shouldn’t digest another animals milk. Your mothers milk is used as a life source and sort of a human growth product when u are a child, it helps develop you, but after awhile you don’t need it anymore…that’s why so many ppl are lactose intolerant, humans are not meant to drink milk for the rest of their lives. Milk is suppose to fatten a baby up, so why do we continue to drink it…Dairy Association of America has a such a strong hold on the USDA that we have been brainwashed to believe other wise

Monique January 6, 2012 - 2:07 PM

Excellent post!
It’s hard for many people to fathom not drinking milk when it has been drilled in us for so long how “necessary” it is. Never mind the fact that most (especially African-Americans) can’t digest it.
I remember when I was a kid, my aunt used to buy my cousin Lactaid for his cereal. She said milk was the only way he could get his vitamin D, so she HAD to get the alternative. lol Even then I knew that didn’t make much sense and now that I’m older, I realize that nut milks like almond or hemp probably would have been better for him (easier to digest).
I find it interesting that we’re the only species that will consume milk well into adulthood AND from another species entirely. Dairy industry and government funding at it’s finest. SAD 🙁

Kristina January 14, 2012 - 12:28 AM

Hmm. Im not sure about this. Processed, pasteurized milk derived from diseased and hormone- pumped cows is clearly not good for you. But there benefits to organic u pasteurized milk from local farms, probiotics which aid the gut in digesting food while also stimulating the immune system being one. Also keep in mind that other cultures consume milk from different sources. For example many west africans drink milk from goats. Personally, i believe that milk is not only safe but nutritious. If one isnt lactose intolerant, organic and unpasteurized milk is the way to go.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 14, 2012 - 11:06 AM

Goat’s milk isn’t new, but it’s still peculiar that milk is being used outside of its original purpose, which is to feed and nurture young.

There is absolutely nothing in milk that can’t be obtained via other means. I’m also pretty certain that, before milk got its “mass marketing” and experienced its ascension to “sole source of ‘special’ type of calcium for bone health” that African cultures did not, in fact, drink milk. Lots of studies against drinking milk actually source Africans (from all over) as the reason why and how people can sustain WITHOUT it.

We can talk about raw milk, sure, but if your body doesn’t want ANY kind of milk and you’re expriencing discomfort from it because so many are, in fact, lactose intolerant… then it’s a pretty useless conversation.

kristina January 27, 2012 - 12:26 PM

🙂 I can appreciate your passion in educating others on how to live healthier lives. With that being said, there is no such thing as a nutrient or vitamin that has a single food source. As one can abstain from milk and get the the nutrients from other sources, the same is for any other food. Thank God for variety! Is it speculation or hard facts that African cultures didnt drink milk before mass marketing? My point in mentioning this is that many of the side effects associated with inorganic cow milk is not seen with milk from other animal sources. As a physician, I strongly believe that the ills experienced from drinking milk is not a result of drinking the milk itself, but it is from drinking overly processed byproduct from animals who are not fed a natural diet and are pumped with hormones and antibiotics. Milk, itself, is pretty clean and quite healthy.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 27, 2012 - 12:37 PM

“Is it speculation or hard facts that African cultures didnt drink milk before mass marketing?”

It is fact. Not speculation.

I’m not understanding the debate. Either your body wants milk, or it doesn’t. Again, if you consume raw milk and still experience discomfort – which has to do with the milk and not its processing… which, again, would make sense since general consumption is notthe initial purpose of milk – then don’t drink it. Like you said, there is no nutrient (short of B12) that has a single food source.

I can’t keep repeating myself.

Olivia September 17, 2012 - 11:12 AM

In the past four years I have come to the conclusion that I am lactose intolerant. My husband is the one that forced me to realize it because in my culture (Jamaican) it was never even considered. Once I became interested in food and how it affected my body I realized that milk products (other than yogurt and small amounts of cheese) caused stomach problems and Lord help anyone near me if I had a milkshake or ice cream! This actually allowed me to finally stop eating ice cream because the stomach pains just weren’t worth it. When I was pregnant WIC gave me coupons for Lactaid and I drank more milk than I ever have because I was told my baby needed it. I still continue to drink Lactaid but it’s rare because I really only use milk for cereal and cereal just doesn’t give me enough food per calorie ratio! I never thought about whether milk is good or not so thanks for this article. In 4 months my son will be old enough to drink milk and I considered only giving him lactaid since both me and his father are lactose intolerant. This is an issue I will certainly look into before just giving him the milk. Is it better to drink lactose free milk or should we just stop drinking milk altogether?

Nicole April 12, 2013 - 3:27 PM

This may be a somewhat different issue, but what about this talk recently of non/low-fat chocolate milk after strength training? I rarely drink milk at all anymore, but I like the idea of chocolate milk instead of protein shakes. I do crossfit, I’m just not sure that I’m training hard enough to need those shakes. Maybe it’s a misconception, but I feel like only body builders need those shakes. Is this true?
I feel like I just want real protein (not that chocolate milk comes from chocolate cows, but you know what I mean 😉

Erika Nicole Kendall April 12, 2013 - 7:32 PM

Propaganda. Yeah, you can drink chocolate milk… you could also just eat a meal. Most people sabotage themselves with those pre/post workout drinks. You’re not lean enough or working hard enough to justify it.

Also, I’ve written about protein shakes, but after my certification, I’ve realized that bodybuilders – and I mean super-huge, single-digit-lean ones – may be the only ones who NEED that shake because they need both the protein AND the sugar in it. Most people don’t have enough muscle to justify that.

RC April 19, 2013 - 11:19 PM

Well, most people that can’t digest “normal milk” (read: pasteurized milk or dead milk as I have come to think of it) can digest raw milk. I read a stat once that said something like 80% of those who are lactose intolerant can consume raw milk. It’s pretty much the only type of dairy I consume these days. I started drinking it to control my eczema and allergies a few years ago, but also found it to be beneficial for my weightloss journey as well.

CurlyCuse April 20, 2013 - 8:16 AM

Besides the lactose-intolerance issues, another reason to consider avoiding dairy products is the pro-inflammatory tendency. Many people are sensitive to casein, a milk protein, and have reactions to it: worsening allergies, asthma and sinus problems, joint pain, fatigue, and even behavioral effects (worsening of ADHD and autistic symptoms). Ive been amazed to find what a dramatic effect avoiding dairy has had on reducing my chronic joint pain.

Krista May 14, 2013 - 2:39 PM

Schiff Digestive Advantage Lactose Defense Formula

… This saved me. At 20 years old I finally realized why I got sick everyday when I was younger. I am lactose intolerant. Without the pills I can’t even have a sip of milk. I’ve been taking them for about five years.

Erika, your blog is amazing. You also use some great words, like obfuscate. My third favorite word!

AshBash July 1, 2013 - 7:02 PM

Once again I knew I was not crazy! I have been telling people since I was 18 that I don’t understand why we (humans) drink cows milk. Its not logical to me. Its like giving animals human breast milk when they clearly eat solid foods. I loved whoe milk as a kid bc it was sweet. But I did a test on my 1 yr old. I gave him whole milk one mornin and almond milk the next. He drank both but he asked for a 2nd cup of almond and did not finnish the cup of whole milk. That pretty much did it for me. *steps off my soapbox*

Jennie July 3, 2013 - 5:44 PM

I stopped drinking milk after seeing some horrible “Got Milk” ads that made me super angry. I’ve been drinking almond and soy milk ever since. BUT, I learned a lot when I first quit. I learned that the uptake of calcium from milk can be thwarted due to the hormones present in milk. Somehow (I’m no doctor or scientist), the hormones and way your body digests the milk can prevent women’s bodies from accessing the calcium in the milk. If this is true, and if everyone is drinking milk all the time, then why do we still have so many issues with osteoporosis in the US?

Since quitting, my hormonal acne has completely disappeared and I’ve stopped having cavities in my teeth. But now, whenever I have ice cream or yogurt, my tummy hurts a lot or I get sick. For me personally, I’ve found that cutting milk out of my diet has helped me a lot — so I’m not surprised if milk is not the best food for adult humans, and i’m certainly not surprised if the milk industry is keeping that information from being widely known.

Jennie July 3, 2013 - 5:46 PM

If this is true, and if everyone is drinking milk all the time, then why do we still have so many issues with osteoporosis in the US?

Excerpted from Exactly How Does Milk Do A Body Good? | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

Oops, I mean: This may be true since, if everyone is drinking milk all the time, why do we have any issues with osteoporosis in the US?

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