If You Love Milk, We've Got Bad News For You

No food product has ever received quite as much celebrity endorsement as milk. The 21-year-old "Got Milk" campaign began in 1993 and ended earlier in 2014, and as one of the most successful and famous ad campaigns in the country, it was credited with increasing sales and consumption of the drink in California, if not nationwide. But despite its star power, a new study shows that milk is linked to early deaths, and worse yet, that regular, frequent drinkers of the stuff not only are not protected from brittle bones and fractures, but actually broke their bones more often than their non-milk drinking compatriots. Next, we'll find out that green leafy vegetables are actually the dietary equivalent of a Twinkie.

Being lactose intolerant has never been so enviable as it is now that the British Medical Journal has released results of a new study of 100,000 Swedes that show that milk is actually really bad for you. Over the course of a few decades, scientists followed their subjects and catalogued their milk habits as well as their health. Despite the Surgeon General's constant encouragement of young people to consume large quantities of the liquid in order to promote good bone health and prevent osteoporosis, researchers have countered these widely-accepted beliefs by showing that people who were the most faithful milk drinkers, consuming the Surgeon General recommended three glasses a day, were more likely to die early from heart disease and cancer.

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Moreover, when it came to women, drinking milk was linked to an increased number of overall bone fractures and hip fractures. In fact, bone fractures in general increased by 16 percent amongst milk drinkers, and hip fractures shot up a stunning 60 percent compared to women who did not drink milk as frequently.

Why could this be the case? According to the study, the culprit is D-galactose, a sugar found in milk in particularly high quantities. Scientists believe that the galactose may contribute to bone inflammation, which normally comes with age, causing your bones to become more brittle. Brittle bones, of course, are most commonly linked with health problems like osteoporosis, a disease that has often been attributed to a lack of calcium consumption. While milk certainly has high-calcium qualities, it's also high in less desirable compounds, like fat and sugar.

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Additional research has shown that galactose has adverse effects on animals, so it's no surprise that humans don't fare much better in the face of the sugar. Karl Michaelsson, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden and one of the study's authors, told Live Science, "...if you provide galactose to experimental animals, they will die faster by induction of oxidative stress and inflammation." The study results also displayed an association between fewer fractures and low-lactose milk. Sugar, it seems, is really doing us much more harm than we know.

David Ludwig, a Harvard professor of nutrition, noted in a 2013 publication that there is little evidence to support the commonly held assumption that milk is the key to building strong bones. In fact, humans are one of the only species to drink the milk of other animals, and Ludwig suggests that we may not need to at all. He told the Washington Post,

Until very very recently, from an evolutionary perspective, humans would have consumed no milk products at all and would have consumed calcium from other sources. Populations that drink no milk at all have perfectly fine bones.
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Interestingly enough, not all dairy products are created equal, and according to Michaelsson's study, yogurt and other milk-based products have actually been shown to reduce the rate of bone fractures. This, scientists say, remains in line with their findings that sugars like galactose are to blame for the problematic qualities of milk. In yogurt and certain fermented cheeses, there is far less lactose than in a glass of milk. And considering that a one-inch cube of cheese contains the same amount of calcium as a whole cup of milk, it may be time to make the switch from the liquid to the solid dairy source.

Of course, like any study, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. If you're a big time milk drinker, there may not be any reason to run to your fridge and pour out every gallon you have. The study's results may be a case of correlation, not causation, as there could be other hidden factors other than milk that lent themselves to health risks like cancer, heart disease and bone fractures. For one, those with a family history of these issues may have consumed more milk as a precautionary measure. This means that even if milk had a decidedly neutral effect, it could now be bearing the brunt of the blame as a result of certain individuals' predispositions to these ailments.

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The good news is, if these results are true, overall milk consumption in the United States has already dropped from 1.5 cups a day to about 0.8 cups a day. The bad news, of course, is that milk is being replaced by sugary drinks like Coke, energy drinks or some other variant of flavored sugar water. But also on the rise are plant-based milk alternatives like soy, almond, hemp and rice milk. So if you're part of the 65 percent of the world that is lactose intolerant, or better yet, vegan, try out some milk alternatives that will grant you plenty of calcium without any of the pesky D-galactose that seems to have some adverse side effects.