Got dairy? Pouring a tall, cool glass of milk for healthy bones and better blood pressure has been the "good nutrition" rule for decades. But given the new research that is emerging, it's not something we can enthusiastically recommend anymore. As more scientific studies question cow milk's long-famous benefits and expose potential problems that eating dairy products may trigger, we want to tell you what we think about the new findings: We believe the evidence is troubling, but not conclusive. So here's our advice on the smart way to get some dairy into your diet — and how to get the bulk of nutrients it offers from other sources.
The New Case Against Milk
Milk is packed with natural sugars. Even reduced-fat milk may add fuel to the childhood obesity epidemic. One cup of 2 percent milk has 3 teaspoons' worth, more than the added sugars in a chocolate-covered peanut butter cup.
Essential for strong bones? Maybe not. You do need calcium, along with magnesium, potassium and vitamins D and K, to build and maintain strong bones and protect yourself from late-life fractures that lower quality of life and lead to premature death. Milk's got all three minerals plus D, but it's not the only source. And while there's evidence that it can bolster bone density, there's also some research that indicates milk might not protect against fractures. That could knock out one big reason you drink milk.
There's a suggestion of raised cancer risk. Some studies associate high levels of lactose, the amount of milk sugar you consume from drinking three glasses a day, with a higher risk of ovarian cancer. And two preliminary studies have found that milk may increase levels of insulin-like growth factor, which can fuel the growth of cancer cells, and milk protein may increase cancer risk. However, these two studies' findings have not been duplicated.
How to Do Dairy Today
• No. 1: Skip whole milk and other high-fat dairy products. You don't need all that saturated fat that clogs arteries and raises inflammation levels, which puts you at risk for heart disease, diabetes and a host of other health problems. Instead, go with non-fat dairy. It can be rich and satisfying. Just check out Greek yogurt and limit your intake to two glasses of low or nonfat milk a day.
• No. 2: Sidestep milk if you're lactose intolerant. If milk or other dairy foods leave you feeling crampy, gassy and bloated, and/or gives you diarrhea, you may lack the enzyme that breaks down the sugar in milk. It's a more common problem among people of Asian, African, Native American and Hispanic descent, the elderly and premature babies. Skip milk, or if for some reason you can't, take pills or drops that break down the lactose for you.
• No. 3: Don't skimp on calcium. We recommend 1,200 milligrams a day. It's fine to get up to 600 milligrams from a supplement (choose one that also provides vitamin D and magnesium). Get the rest from food. That could be two servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or one and a half servings of high-calcium, fat-free plain yogurt.
But why not widen your calcium horizons? Cooked greens, dried beans, canned salmon, calcium-set tofu and almonds are all good sources. Easy calcium boost: Keep frozen spinach or collard greens on hand. One cooked cup of either delivers a whopping 291-357 milligrams of calcium, on par with a glass of milk. One cup of white beans, edamame (green soy beans) or black-eyed peas delivers around 200 milligrams. A cup of whole almonds delivers 378 milligrams calcium — slightly more than a cup of milk — but don't gobble more than 15 at a time. One cup is loaded with 529 calories and 45 grams fat (1 cup of milk has 146 calories and 8 grams fat).
• No. 4: Round up the rest of the bone-building team. Calcium doesn't work alone. Be sure to get 1,000 milligrams of vitamin D-3 daily. Then eat plenty of produce to get your fill of magnesium, potassium and vitamin K.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Dr. Michael Roizen is chief medical officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For more information go to www.sharecare.com.