Is milk bad for you?

I’ve long heard vegans trumpet alleged links between milk and prostate cancer as a way of discouraging people from drinking milk. My reaction to that has tended to be that, prima facie, vegans have a point about the ethics of milk (or at least how we currently produce it), but it’s probably just wishful thinking when they insist the most ethical diet is also the healthiest. (See previous post about the health/ethics/cost balancing act for food.)

But now, via a vegan friend on Facebook, I find out that Harvard has left milk off of its healthy eating recommendations. Due to the associated cancer risk, they recommend limiting milk and dairy to one or two servings per day. Harvard isn’t exactly clear, though, on why milk might be bad for you.

Right away, though, reading Harvard’s recommendations I think if I only cared about health, I’d eat chicken for animal protein (and possibly other nutrients that hard to get without eating animal products), and supplement for calcium. But given that the number of animals killed in chicken production is much worse than for milk, I decided to do some more searching.

Some sites that came up when I Googled milk and cancer risk suggested the issue was added hormones, which can be avoided by drinking organic milk. Another site suggested the evidence was ambiguous.

Wikipedia makes the issues sound unclear. Maybe it’s too much calcium, maybe it’s too much vitamin A, we don’t know. Notably, Wikipedia suggests skim milk may be worse in some ways because of added vitamin A, which is a problem for drinking skim milk to avoid getting too much animal fat.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. For the time being, I think I’ll continue to drink my organic skim milk from whole foods, while limiting myself to Harvard’s two servings on most days.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Some sites that came up when I Googled milk and cancer risk suggested the issue was added hormones, which can be avoided by drinking organic milk. Another site suggested the evidence was ambiguous.

    American Cancer Society – The summary of “ambiguous” is very conservative. If there were notable bad effects, they would have been seen by now.
    FDA – This report lacks a clear summary, but they say it’s OK. They approved its use.
    The organic food movement is not evidence-based, try to stick to reliable sources.

    • Chris Hallquist

      The organic food movement definitely has some woo-y aspects. I have no doubt that GMOs are totally safe. However, as a general rule of thumb, the human body is complicated and it’s safer to minimize the amount of evolutionarily novel substances you put into it if it’s convenient to do so. Especially with meat, since a lot of that stuff gets concentrated up the food chain.

  • Ders

    This sounds like an argument from authority. Harvard has been wrong before. If you don’t know what the reasoning is, you’re just listening to them because they are Harvard. As a biochemist, I can tell you that we know very little about this stuff. Many diet studies are just linkage studies which imply correlation, but not causation. As far as organic food goes, there is zero evidence that it is healthier for you. Penn and Teller’s Bullshit series does a good job of explaining organic food.

  • Yvain

    I haven’t looked into this myself, but a lot of people in this area recommend the China Study (both the book and the actual study). I found a takedown of it that seemed really convincing one time, but you’ll probably stumble across that too if you Google it.

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