We all know that one person who drinks milk at every meal… Maybe you are that person. There’s nothing like cold chocolate milk to wash down your dinner, some spaghetti and 2%. Every glass of milk has a story, which usually starts with a cow. But at the very end of that story, you will find one conclusion: You should not drink milk.
This goes beyond petty disagreements. Drinking cow’s milk causes an array of negative health risks and environmental consequences, with few, if any, irreplaceable benefits.
Humans are not meant to drink other animals’ milk, especially past the age of breastfeeding. The human body typically begins to lose its ability to digest lactose after infancy in a process known as lactose malabsorption. This is due to decreased availability of the enzyme lactase that allows your small intestine to break down lactose. In fact, researchers estimate that about 68% of the world’s population experiences this malabsorption, often leading to some level of lactose intolerance.
Studies have shown that milk is linked to a number of other cancers and diseases, such as breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. Saturated fat in milk and other dairy products is also the number one source of saturated fat in the U.S., which contributes to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Many people also worry about the health effects of hormones in their milk. There are a variety of studies on this topic, but steroid hormones pose the most “profound biological effects” (Malekinejad, H., & Rezabakhsh, A., 2015). Milk cannot be produced without hormones. This is the biological reality for humans, goats and any other lactating animal. Pregnancy-type hormones, like estrogen, must be present for a mammal to produce milk. Cows are not milk machines, they cannot constantly lactate without any stimulation. They must either be impregnated, usually via artificial insemination, or given hormones.
Furthermore, cows must endure the tight, often painful conditions of dairy farms. According to a 2014 USDA study, 20% of U.S. dairy farm cattle are kept in “freestalls with no outdoor access.” Cows must often endure the mental stress of transportation, poor living qualities and early maternal separation.
This leads us into the environmental concerns. Livestock accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions, with cattle being the top agricultural source of these emissions. This is mainly due to the methane they release, which is 28 times more potent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. On top of this, a cow requires a large amount of food, water and other resources to live. With more than 1.5 billion cows on the planet, the environmental strain is apparent.
And we haven’t even talked about government cheese. (Wondering if you read that right? You did.) It started during the Great Depression, when farmers were struggling to produce food for the country. Government acts were passed to help farmers and stabilize prices through WWII. In the 1970s, as another recession hit the U.S. , the Carter administration set a new policy to help farmers. This gave the dairy industry $2 billion dollars in about four years. Farmers produced as much milk as possible to receive government benefits, and the government bought excess milk to continue to support this industry. With no way to store the milk for long periods of time, the government processed it into cheese, butter and other dairy products. By the 80s, the government had over 500 million pounds of product stored across the country.
And why does this all matter? The surplus of dairy products owned by the U.S. government continued to be a problem. They donated cheese to shelters and schools, but the dairy industry feared losing the profits at their current rate of production. The solution: Get Americans to consume more dairy. In the following years (and with the help of the Dairy Act and Fluid Milk Act), campaigns like “Got Milk?” popped up to encourage dairy consumption beyond a necessary and healthy, level. Milk-drinking is advertised as the best way for kids to grow and strengthen their bones; one of the most unique, recognizable features of U.S. elementary school lunchrooms is the little milk cartons.
So what next? The good news is that there are plenty of replacements. Oat milk and soy milk are excellent substitutes. The non-dairy market continues to evolve, with soy-based cheeses and vegan ice creams hitting the shelves. Though the alternatives have flaws of their own, their benefits outweigh the negative aspects – unlike cow’s milk. I’m not here to shame you. I personally cannot go a day without ice cream. But while the idea of completely eliminating dairy from your diet can seem daunting, intense and often polarizing, lessening your consumption is achievable.