Here’s what research does — and doesn’t — say about the effects of milk on your health, and how to tell whether milk is actually doing your body any good.

It used to be that few foods seemed as wholesome as a nice, cold glass of milk.
Your mom may have served milk with dinner or offered it at bedtime when you were feeling restless. You’ve seen your favorite celebs don milk mustaches as part of an iconic marketing campaign that’s spanned 20 years and appeared to solidify the idea that milk was not just healthy, but a necessity.

Turns out, it’s not.

“Any kind of natural food is not inherently bad; it’s eating patterns that can contribute to disease,” says Robin Foroutan, RDN, an integrative dietician at the Morrison Center in New York City and a spokesperson for the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In other words, there’s little reason to think that any individual whole food on its own is going to ruin your diet. Milk isn’t dangerous. But milk also isn’t for everyone. Here’s what you should know about who benefits most from milk, and who would be better off cutting back or going dairy-free.

Just the Facts on Milk’s Nutrition

Milk—or, more specifically, cow’s milk—is indeed a good source of vitamins and minerals.

“Milk is a great source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, which are ‘nutrients of concern’ in the U.S. population,” meaning that many people don’t get enough, says Vasanti Malik, PhD, a research scientist in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It also contains magnesium, along with other minerals and nutrients.”

“If you don’t consume dairy it’s really hard to get enough calcium,” which is crucial for strong bones, says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, Associate Director of Nutrition Communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. The vitamin D and potassium in milk are also important for bone health.

How Much Milk Should You Drink?

If you do choose to consume dairy, Malik says that one serving a day is a good guideline. Ashley Koff, RDN, CEO of The Better Nutrition Program, agrees. She tells clients who opt to include dairy in their diets to “accessorize” meals with it—say, one slice of cheese on a sandwich or a splash of milk in your coffee.

That might surprise you, considering that the USDA recommends 3 servings daily. But Koff, Malik, and Foroutan say that number may be overkill. The only people who might need that much dairy are children and the elderly, because they tend to be picky eaters who might not otherwise get the nutrients they need.

Why You Shouldn’t Overdo It On Dairy

Assuming you like milk and aren’t allergic to it, most experts say it’s fine and arguably even healthy to continue drinking it—at least in moderation. The reason why eating too much dairy isn’t advisable is because it can push other healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) out of your diet.

Conversely, the opposite is true: When people cut milk out of their diet and find they feel better, it’s often not because milk was wreaking havoc on their bodies. It’s because their overall diet quality improves when they replace that dairy with more nutrient-dense produce and other whole foods.

But Does Milk Make You Fat?

If you’ve heard that milk will make you fat, that’s not proven, either.“It’s true that milk comes from mammals and has a biological purpose—to feed infants so they can grow up and develop,” says Foroutan.

Milk naturally contains growth hormone as well as IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor-1) — both of which are designed to make animals get bigger. But there’s really no proof that the amount found in milk would contribute to obesity—nor is it enough to make you get jacked. (There is some proof that drinking milk after a workout can help you build muscle, mostly thanks to the protein content).

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