Woman with glass of milk
Photo: Burke/Triolo Productions
Despite their children's begging and pleading for soda or juice, many parents never serve anything other than milk with dinner. "Drink your milk," they say. "It's good for you."

As adults, we're all well-acquainted with this idea. Milk is good for us. But beyond this vague notion and the familiar milk-mustache media campaign, confusion clouds the specifics of exactly why that is. What about milk is good for us? How does it really improve our health? Experts share the makeup of milk and dive into the details that make this drink a dietary staple for millions of Americans.

Milk's Makeup

According to the National Dairy Council, milk is filled with nine essential nutrients that benefit our health:

  • Calcium: Builds healthy bones and teeth; maintains bone mass
  • Protein: Serves as a source of energy; builds/repairs muscle tissue
  • Potassium: Helps maintain a healthy blood pressure
  • Phosphorus: Helps strengthen bones and generate energy
  • Vitamin D: Helps maintain bones
  • Vitamin B12: Maintains healthy red blood cells and nerve tissue
  • Vitamin A: Maintains the immune system; helps maintain normal vision and skin
  • Riboflavin (B2): Converts food into energy
  • Niacin: Metabolizes sugars and fatty acids
In other words, milk packs quite a punch when it comes to nutrition—and you don't have to drink a gallon to reap the benefits, the National Dairy Council says. In fact, the council says that just one 8-ounce glass of milk provides the same amount of vitamin D you'd get from 3.5 ounces of cooked salmon, as much calcium as 2 1/4 cups of broccoli, as much potassium as a small banana, as much vitamin A as two baby carrots and as much phosphorus as a cup of kidney beans!

Milk and Weight Loss

All of these nutrients contribute to our overall health and wellness, and they can even play a part in weight loss, says Dr. Brian Roy, an associate professor of applied health sciences at Canada's Brock University.

Dr. Roy published a study on the impact milk has on the body post-exercise. While he admits there's some controversy surrounding milk's influence on weight loss and body fat in general, he also shares that recent studies have shown that when milk was consumed by young adults after weight training, they lost more body fat and gained more muscle mass than those who had consumed different drinks that contained the same energy and macronutrients.

"The important message from this is that it is probably important to include multiple servings of milk as a part of your daily diet," Dr. Roy says. "However, simply adding more milk to your diet will add to your total energy intake. So, if you add more milk to your diet, it likely will be most effective if it replaces other sources of energy from your diet, to ensure you are not consuming excess calories."

Read about milk's shocking effect on disease
Milk and Disease

Ready for a shocking statistic? According to research led by professor Peter Elwood of Cardiff University, drinking milk can lessen the chances of dying from illnesses such as coronary heart disease and stroke by up to 15 to 20 percent.

This research—a systematic review of evidence from 324 published studies—is actually the first time that disease risk associated with drinking milk has been looked at in relation to deaths from those diseases.

However, there are conflicting studies that claim milk actually contributes to disease, specifically heart disease. What about them? "The fact that milk-drinking raises cholesterol is, for many people, proof that milk is a cause of heart disease," Elwood says. "But cholesterol is only one mechanism in heart disease. Blood pressure is another relevant mechanism, and milk-drinking is associated with a lower blood pressure. It is therefore totally unreasonable to base conclusions about milk and heart disease on the effect on cholesterol alone."

Heart disease isn't the only thing that can be affected by milk. Elwood says that analysis of large, long-term studies shows that milk and dairy consumption are associated with a small reduction in death from heart disease events, strokes, new cases of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and possibly bladder cancer.

"As heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer are major sources of healthcare expenditure, any measure that is associated with a reduction in these diseases—however small that reduction is—is also bound to have an impact on healthcare costs," Elwood says.

How Much Milk?

To get the full benefits of milk, including the nine essential nutrients, the USDA says adults should consume three servings of milk (or cheese or yogurt) each day. A serving size is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1.5 ounces of natural cheese or 2 ounces of processed cheese. So, go ahead—drink your milk. It's good for you.

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