Health – Is milk or a volcano a bigger health risk?

The milk debate with my yoga teacher has rumbled on, I was brought up with semi-skimmed milk being deemed healthy – an early teen attempt to stop drinking it was met with an ‘interesting’ nutritional lecture by my mother which was so rant-filled that I didn’t question drinking milk in her earshot again!

Parking my mother’s ‘interesting’ parenting skills – it is thanks to her that I know Pritt Stick is very hard to remove from car windscreens, milk has some serious critics out there.

The main argument in milk’s favour is that it is a nice easy source of calcium, the National Osteoporosis Society recommends that adults consume 800mg of calcium each day to protect their bones, while growing teenagers should have 1,000mg.(1)

pritt stick

(Photo from a shop)

But an article in the Guardian suggested that this might be too simplistic:
“In fact, the bone loss and deteriorating bone tissue that take place in osteoporosis are due not to calcium deficiency but rather to its resortion: it’s not that our bodies don’t get enough calcium, rather that they excrete too much of what they already have… The most important culprit is almost certainly the overconsumption of protein. High-protein foods such as meat, eggs and dairy make excessive demands on the kidneys, which in turn leach calcium from the body.” (2)

So cut down on dairy and meat – all meat? What about fish? There seem to be more questions than answers from that statement but it does raise doubts about the major reason that I drink milk.

Various studies have linked milk to all sorts of bad things (including cancer) but these studies don’t seem to draw the same conclusion twice or if they do then there is at least one that claims the opposite result under the same conditions (or doesn’t bother measuring any other conditions)! When I started reading about the evils of milk on some of the more militant websites it started mentioning migraine headaches and joint pain – given my stupid knee and repeated killer headaches over the past couple of months this waved a red flag at me and made me think less milk might be a good experiment.


(Photo from the BBC)

A lot of the websites seemed to take great delight in warning of hormones in milk but few of them quantified what hormones they meant. I took a guess and assumed they means recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) – which increases milk yield, this is bad because apparently rBGH boosts milk’s concentration of insulin-like growth factor (IGF), a hormone that’s been linked to cancer.

But apparently “Unlike steroid hormones, which can be taken orally, rBGH and IGF must be injected to have any effect. That’s because the process of digestion destroys these “protein” hormones. So drinking milk from hormone-treated cows doesn’t transfer the active form of these chemicals to your body.” (3)

It still sounds off putting but I would hope that drinking organic milk would minimise this – this internet is lovely and vague on this point (it pretty much suggests to read the small print on the packet then toss a coin).

edinburgh cow parade

(Photo from

If the rabid websites are talking about naturally occurring cow hormone – the ones needed to make baby cows into big cows, then even organic milk won’t impact this and I wasn’t able to find a properly cited scientific study to explain the potential damage of these hormones. Although there is a large body of work around the cancer-based risks of excess oestrogen from pregnant cow milk.

So maybe cutting down on cow milk could be good, what about non-dairy milk substitutes? The trouble is I drink milk so it needs to not taste gross and most of the substitutes taste grim and are packed with preservatives. I am also wary of soy milk as there are some studies that show soy is toxic – maybe everything is bad for you and we should just jump into a volcano to end it all?

Stuck and confused by too much internet searching I asked a woman who is studying to become a nutritionist what she’d learnt about milk, she said that she only drank organic milk and swore that it had a positive impact. I’d already swapped this week’s online shop to organic milk before talking to her, so I felt rather happy!

inflatable kangaroo

(Photo from Ebay)

She also mentioned that milk routinely damaged the lining of the gut and intestine, this damage does repair overtime – she got distracted by an inflatable kangaroo at this point but she was probably going to go onto say don’t have too much dairy and take time out from it occasionally.

I think that what she was talking about is different from Lactose intolerance (an inability to digest lactose – the sugar in milk) as, from what I hear, Lactose intolerance has a noticeable effect on bowels so I’d imagine that you know if you have it!

To conclude, the internet is filled with people shouting their opinions and cutting out dairy totally seems somewhat drastic, so I’m going to try organic milk and cut down to under a glass a day. This sounds a manageable change which will simultaneously horrify both sides of the milk debate – I am going to call this a win.

2) The Guardian

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