By Ghazala Khan

Milk is a very important part of a healthy diet. As a child, many of us were forced to drink milk by our parents but as adults we forget how important it is to continue drinking it. Canada’s Food Guide recommends 2 servings of milk products for women and men aged 19 to 50 every day, yet studies show that two out of three Canadians are not getting their recommended servings. More on Health Canada’s Nutrition guidelines can be read here.

There is so much more to a glass of milk and that is what we will discuss here: the many benefits to including milk in your daily diet, the different types of milk and alternative choices to cow’s milk.

Why Is It Good For You?

There are 16 essential nutrients found in milk. The most important of these are calcium, choline, potassium and vitamin D.

Calcium contributes towards the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. It also helps towards wound healing, preventing blood clots, maintaining normal blood pressure levels and muscle contractions including heartbeat. It is important to take an extra source of Vitamin D with foods which are calcium-rich to help small intestine absorb all the calcium.

Choline is a nutrient which helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning and memory.

Potassium reduces the risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and formation of kidney stones. It also protects against loss of muscle mass.

Vitamin D helps with formation, growth and repair of bones. It absorbs calcium and strengthens the immune system.

Other minerals found in milk are phosphorus, magnesium, riboflavin along with A and B vitamins.

Types of Milk

There are four main types of milk: Whole milk, reduced fat milk, low fat milk and skim milk, the difference is in their total fat content.

Whole milk contains 3.25% fat which comes straight from the cow before being processed.

Reduced fat milk contains 2%, 1% or 0% fat and undergoes processing to remove extra fat which comes from the cream found in whole milk. Aside from the obvious difference in taste they also differ in fat, nutrient and calorie content.

By skimming the cream, vitamins such as A,D,E and K are lost as well. Many companies have now developed ways to add these vitamins back in however some argue that fat-soluble vitamins are not as easily absorbed without the milk fat.

Many debates, research and studies have been done to try and determine if milk with reduced fat is a healthier choice compared to whole milk. Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of Department of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, argues there is little data to support the idea that low fat milks are better than whole milk. Research shows milk fat gives the immune system and metabolism a boost. This allows whole milk to be a source of physiological benefits like a decreased risk of infertility in women, preventing colorectal cancer in men and helping build muscle throughout the body.

Low fat milk does not lower calorie consumption in fact it increases saturated-fat calories. A study done by University of Virginia School of Medicine actually shows that children who drank skim or low-fat milk were heavier than those who drank reduced fat or whole milk.

Another study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood showed scientists found kids who drank low fat milk were actually likely to be overweight later on. This may be linked to the fact that drinking higher fat milk leaves people satisfied longer so they do not crave for other fatty foods. Also anything reduced in fat will have an increased level of sugar and sodium which can be detrimental if trying to lose weight.

Milk Alternatives

For some, milk can actually be a cause of serious discomfort. If a person is lactose intolerant, they lack the enzyme to break down the sugar found in dairy products for proper digestion. For years those who were lactose intolerant didn’t have much of a choice except to completely remove dairy from their diet. This is no longer the case as now there is lactose free milk available. How to tell if you are lactose intolerant? If you experience bloating, gas or diarrhea after consuming dairy products chances are you are lactose intolerant. It is best to see your family doctor to have yourself tested and to discuss your options.

Alternatively other options such as Almond, Rice or Soy milk are also widely available. Many nutrition experts will argue that these choices are not as healthy as cow’s milk, but if taken with a balanced diet (where you are consuming extra vitamins or nutrients these types of milks lack) it can actually assist in losing weight or living a balanced lifestyle.

The Choice Is Yours!

Choosing which type of milk is best for you is a matter of personal choice. Diet, use and preference helps to determine which would suit you best. Personally I believe balancing different types of milk is the way to go. For example with cereal I may choose to use skim milk considering cereal alone has a high content of calories, sugar and carbohydrates. In a protein shake or milkshake for my family I would rather use whole milk as the point is to get as much calcium and vitamins into us as I can. For tea or coffee I may choose to use 2% milk especially if I know I will be having more than 3 cups in one day. Balancing is the key for everything. What we eat, drink, do should all be balanced to provide a healthy lifestyle.

Whatever you do, make sure you are getting your daily milk and dairy requirements to stay healthy and active.

About the Author

Ghazal Khan is the mother of an 11 year old boy who recently became a stay-at-home mom and is loving every minute of it!

So, do you get your intake of milk and dairy products on a daily basis? Or have you shifted to dairy alternates? How do you make sure you and your family are getting enough dairy in your diet?