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I have a vegan friend who is claiming that animal milk is not healthy since, to digest it or decompose it, your body needs a lot of resources (minerals, etc) and therefore it becomes a non healthy food. For now I'm quitting drinking animal milk until I manage to shine some truth on this topic.

How bad is animal milk, i.e., lactose and/or its different components compared to other aliments?

A semi-scientific approach or a rigorous one would be awesome.

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    This has been covered in detail on Medical SE: Is cow's milk unhealthy?
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 9:58
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    Is this question on-topic? Discuss on Meta.
    – Nic
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 19:09
  • Many people around the world drink animal milk without immediately getting sick. To ask if it is “healthy” is too broad. Do you have a more specific question? The answer would depend partly on your health goals.
    – Nic
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 7:10

3 Answers 3

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Animal milk, is it healthy?

For the most-part, if you don't possess an allergy or intolerance, yes.

There are several things in milk, first let's look at the digestibility of proteins:

Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) is a method of evaluating the quality of a protein based on both the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it.

In this test milk scores 1 (a perfect score) which means that it's considered a very good source of complete protein and easy to digest.

For comparison:

  • Wheat Gluten: 0.25 - Tough to digest.

  • Peanuts: 0.52

  • Dehulled Hemp Seeds 0.66

  • Chickpeas 0.78

  • Soy 0.91

  • Beef 0.92

  • Concentrated Soy protein Isolate: 1 - Easy to digest.

  • Eggs: 1 - Easy.

Next Sugar:

Milk contains lactose which is a disaccharide which is broken down in the gut to glucose and galactose by the enzyme lactase.

Children across the world break down lactose in milk with no trouble, but the ability fades in some as they grow older and they develop lactose intolerance - roughly half the world's population can metabolise lactose without the uncomfortable symptoms occurring.

Fats:

The digestibility has been extensively studied in rats, whose digestive system is considered a good laboratory substitute for humans':

[Diets consisting of] 5% of fat, the following digestive coefficients were obtained:

  • coconut oil 98.9

  • soybean oil 98.5

  • corn oil 97.5

  • butterfat 88.3

  • mutton tallow 74.6

  • oleo stock 74

  • cacao butter 63.3%.

In terms of digestibility, milk fat (butterfat) appears about in the middle of this group.

Of course, many prefer semi-skimmed (half fat) or skimmed (low fat) milk, reducing the significance of this finding.

Butter is also 51% saturated fat, so best to use in moderation.

Vitamins and Minerals:

There is an extensive breakdown at the end of this link, that I will not reproduce here because it's enormous and detailed.

To summarise, milk contains fat soluble and water soluble vitamins and a long list of minerals - all sufficient to feed a calf through its first few months of life as it grows.

Digestion in Humans:

This process has evolved to be efficient, the acids and alkalis and enzymes released are all reabsorbed by the body once they've done their work and been broken down by the fierce environment of the gut - evolution had given us guts that waste as little as can be, in order to maximise our survival chances.

It takes energy to digest food, the body always regains that energy and more through assimilation of the digested food - except when we eat things like celery, which provide us with no energy, but are valued in other ways.

Conclusion:

(TLDR:)

  • There is nothing special about milk in respect of the body's use of resources to digest it - most of us were drinking it exclusively for the first few months of our lives and we thrived and grew just fine.

  • We get more energy and nutrients from drinking it than we expend or lose and it is nutritionally high in most of the things that we need.

  • So, (disclaimer) as part of a balanced diet, it is healthy, yes.

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    @David S I get your point, but I was just answering the OP's concerns in good faith, what you are refering to is another question entirely. If you don't approve then please ask a question yourself which addresses your concerns and we will have a go at answering that. Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 14:12
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    I think it depends on your definition of healthy (namely that it has a net positive impact on health), so I have to disagree, but my comment may have been overly combative and that's not productive.
    – David S
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 16:50
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    Well, there's "is dairy healthy" and there's "is factory farmed dairy from cows receiving hormones and antibiotics healthy"... and the answers to those questions may be different. But that isn't the reason the OP's friend was saying animal milk is unhealthy for humans :)
    – Erica
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 19:18
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    Worth noting that more than 50% of adults globally are lactose intolerant. This varies from about 75% having lactase persistence in Northern Europe to about 95% latose intolerant in Japan. Lactase persistence is an interesting example of rapid evolution, having apparently evolved in humans only in the last several thousand years
    – Zanna
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 20:23
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    @badjohn indeed, defining "healthy" as "improved the chances of surviving long enough to breed and raise children in the prevailing conditions". The ability to digest lactose must have conferred a considerable nutritional advantage to populations who could not rely on or had not developed productive arable farming practices
    – Zanna
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 8:40
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Milk is recommended, particularly to children, because it is a relatively inexpensive source of fat, protein, and calcium. Many very young children are meat-averse, and vegetable averse, and ensuring they get some milk in can help prevent some developmental problems.

That being said, many adults wouldn't get enough calcium when avoiding dairy. Green veggies (aside from spinach) are good sources. So are beans. But when it comes down to it, only ~10-13% of Americans get in enough produce. (I'm not sure about the numbers in other countries). The most commonly eaten vegetable in the US is tomatoes, followed by corn. And those tomatoes typically come in the form of a sauce.

So milk provides calcium, that is readily absorbed. Additionally, it is fortified with vitamin D now, increasing your chance of good bone health.

After all of the above, you should know that you don't HAVE to drink milk in order to be healthy. You can get calcium and protein from other sources, you just have to have a well-planned diet!

Obviously, those with lactose intolerance, or a whey or casein allergy shouldn't drink milk at all.

For an extensive article on calcium and the vegetarian diet, consider my blog post.

Also consider paying attention if you choose a plant-based milk alternative. Almond milk is getting more and more popular, but has a ridiculously low amount of protein. Opt for soy instead. Or even the newer oat milks are pretty good. See if you can find one that is fortified with calcium, or even vitamin B12, if you're vegan.

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The question is vague in multiple ways but I think Metatron's answer, while mostly factually true but also somewhat opinionated, badly misses the question.

Does milk need a lot of resources to digest? No.

Is milk healthy? That begs the question of what is meant by healthy.

As noted by others, most people become milk intolerant in childhood. Some populations, particularly caucasians have become more tolerant. This was via a relatively fast natural selection. Much of Europe (and some other locations such as parts of Africa) had ready access to milk. In those regions, the people who could drink milk had a relatively dependable and nutritious food source that others didn't at a time when food shortages were common. Those who were intolerant were more likely to die and not procreate so the population became more lactose tolerant. When food is scarce, milk is extremely healthy.

Today, food is not scarce. Whether milk is healthy is a very subjective question. Milk is a suspected trigger of type 1 diabetes. Milk is calorie dense where most people are overweight and should be eating less. Milk has saturated fat with likely health risks. Milk is a recent addition to human diets and, as believed by many who advocate Paleo diets, it may not be optimal for human digestion. While there are many facts and other evidence to consider, in the end deciding whether milk is healthy is very subjective.

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    Please provide references for your claims. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 9:02

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