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Good News: The Benefits of Milk Outweigh the Potential Downsides of Dairy

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You probably grew up guzzling milk. It's a solid source of protein, and it helps you build strong bones. Flash forward a few decades, though, and it's no longer front and center in your fridge–if it's in there at all. More and more of us have gone vegan or Paleo and ditched dairy. Even if your diet doesn't prohibit milk, concerns about its link to acne, allergies, and heart disease may have made you nix it.

Other foods have stepped up to fill the gap. The USDA, which suggests three servings of dairy a day, now includes substitutes like soy milk as sources of calcium.

Not coincidentally, the plant-based-milk market has exploded. Almond milk sales have increased by a whopping 250 percent over the last five years, according to Nielsen, and new varieties of nut milks are regularly hitting shelves. The result: Traditional milk sales are plummeting. (Related: 8 Dairy-Free Milks You Haven't Heard Of)

And yet, some recent studies on the health perks of dairy made us wonder: Is it really necessary to give it up completely? Shape set out to investigate.

The benefits of dairy

Turns out, milk still deserves its once stellar reputation (same with these healthy foods that were once considered unhealthy). "Dairy is an incredibly easy way to get a very high dose of essential vitamins and minerals," says Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. "There aren't a lot of whole foods like it." First of all, dairy is a complete protein, with all the essential amino acids your body requires to function. Even though you can get calcium from vegetables, you have to eat a lot of them to hit your recommended daily allowance. Plus, dairy is fortified with vitamin D, which is crucial to helping your body absorb calcium. Not only that, dairy is an excellent choice for active women. Low-fat chocolate milk has been shown to help with muscle recovery after endurance exercise—its protein-to-carb ratio is comparable to that of many sports drinks. Milk might help you tone up too. People who drank two cups of skim milk after lifting weights lost more fat and gained more muscle than those who drank soy, according to a McMaster University study.

Even whole milk, once thought to be linked to heart problems, may not be so bad for you after all. While it does contain unhealthy saturated fat, unlike other foods that have this type of fat—such as red meat—dairy doesn't necessarily put you at a higher risk for heart disease. It might actually help your heart, a recent Advances in Nutrition review found. "Certain nutrients in dairy may counteract the effects of the fat," explains Jean-PhilippeDrouin-Chartier, R.D.N., author of the review and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods at Laval University in Canada.

And now the downside

One of dairy's biggest negatives? The stomach problems it causes. Ninety-eight percent of Southeast Asians, 90 percent of Asian Americans, 79 percent of African Americans, and 5 percent of Europeans have trouble digesting it because they're intolerant of lactose, the type of natural sugar that milk and other dairy products contain, according to the University of California, Davis. As a result, they end up with gas, cramps, bloating, nausea, or diarrhea when they consume it.

Acne is another major concern for many women, who say they break out when they eat dairy. While there hasn't been a definitive study proving that dairy causes pimples, a growing volume of research suggests there's a link, according to a review in Practical Dermatology. The culprit may be hormones, milk proteins, and/or growth factors in dairy that can cause the skin to produce more oil, leading to breakouts (so giving it up could lead to clear skin).

The bottom line

If you choose to follow a dairy-free diet, you can get the benefits of milk elsewhere. "Most nondairy options are fortified with comparable amounts of calcium and vitamin D, and they're easy for your body to absorb," says Wallace.

For all the essential amino acids your body needs, drink soy milk, which is a complete protein. (Although cow's milk has more of one particular amino acid called leucine, soy is still your best nondairy bet when it comes to protein.) Prefer almond or coconut milk? Enjoy it with some whole wheat toast. "Whole grains provide the other amino acids you require," says Wallace.

"B12, which keeps your red blood cells healthy and prevents anemia, is almost solely found in meat and dairy, so most vegetarians need a supplement [2.4 mcg a day]," says Wallace. "Dairy is also high in choline, which helps your body communicate with your brain and may prevent neurological disorders." You've got a good start if you eat eggs (one egg has about 150 mg), but be sure to take a supplement if you're vegan (the RDA is 425 mg for women)

If you want to add dairy back into your diet, Wallace suggests three 8-ounce servings of low-fat milk a day. Or mix and match foods to get your fill: Snack on a cheese stick and eat equal servings of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.

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