6 Reasons You Should Avoid Dairy

Mark Hyman, M.D. by Mark Hyman, M.D. | May 13th, 2010 | 2 Comments
topic: Detox, Family Health, Health & Wellness, Healthy Aging, Healthy Eating

Got milk?

These days, it seems like almost everybody does. Celebrities, athletes and even former president Clinton’s head of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, are all proud to wear the white “milk mustache.” After all, everyone knows that you need milk to be healthy …

Dairy is nature’s perfect food — but only if you’re a calf.

If that sounds shocking to you, it’s because very few people are willing to tell the truth about dairy. In fact, criticizing milk in America is like taking on motherhood, apple pie or baseball. But that’s just what I’m about to do.

Based on research and experience practicing medicine, I typically advise most of my patients to avoid dairy products completely. I like ice cream just as much as the next person but, as a scientist, I have to look honestly at what we know. In today’s blog, I will explore many of the documented ill-effects of dairy, and give you six reasons why you should avoid dairy at all costs.

The truth about dairy

There are many reasons to pass up milk, including:

  • Milk doesn’t reduce fractures. Contrary to popular belief, eating dairy products has never been shown to reduce fracture risk. In fact, according to the Nurses’ Health Study, dairy may increase risk of fractures by 50 percent!
  • Less dairy, better bones. Countries with the lowest rates of dairy and calcium consumption (like those in Africa and Asia) have the lowest rates of osteoporosis.
  • Calcium isn’t as bone-protective as we thought. Studies of calcium supplementation have shown no benefit in reducing fracture risk. Vitamin D appears to be much more important than calcium in preventing fractures.
  • Calcium may raise cancer risk. Research shows that higher intakes of both calcium and dairy products may increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer by 30 to 50 percent. Plus, dairy consumption increases the body’s level of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) — a known cancer promoter.
  • Calcium has benefits that dairy doesn’t. Calcium supplements, but not dairy products, may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
  • Not everyone can stomach dairy. About 75 percent of the world’s population is genetically unable to properly digest milk and other dairy products — a problem called lactose intolerance.

Here are some important conclusions:

  • Everybody needs calcium, but probably not as much as our government’s recommended daily allowance (RDA). The body better utilizes calcium from your diet, including greens and beans, with less risk than calcium supplements.
  • Calcium probably doesn’t prevent broken bones. Few people in this country are likely to reduce their fracture risk by getting more calcium.
  • Men may not want to take calcium supplements. Supplements of calcium and vitamin D may be reasonable for women.

Plus, dairy may contribute to even more health problems, like:

  • Sinus problems
  • Ear infections
  • Chronic constipation
  • Anemia (in children)

Due to these concerns, many have begun to consider raw milk an alternative. But that isn’t really a healthy form of dairy either. Yes, raw, whole, organic milk eliminates concerns like pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and the effects of homogenization and pasteurization. But, to me, these benefits don’t outweigh dairy’s potential risks.

From an evolutionary point of view, milk is a strange food for humans. Until 10,000 years ago, we didn’t domesticate animals and weren’t able to drink milk. If you don’t believe that, consider this: The majority of humans naturally stop producing significant amounts of lactase — the enzyme needed to properly metabolize lactose, the sugar in milk — sometime between the ages of 2 and 5. In fact, for most mammals, the normal condition is to stop producing the enzymes needed to properly digest and metabolize milk after they have been weaned.

Our bodies just weren’t made to digest milk on a regular basis. Instead, most scientists agree that it’s better for us to get calcium, potassium, protein and fats from other food sources, like whole plant foods: vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and seaweed.

So here is my advice for dealing with dairy.

5 tips for dealing with dairy

  • Don’t rely on dairy for healthy bones. If you want healthy bones, get plenty of exercise and supplement with 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily.
  • Get your calcium from food. These include dark green leafy vegetables, sesame tahini, sea vegetables and sardines or salmon with bones.
  • Try giving up all dairy. That means eliminate milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream for two weeks and see if you feel better. You should notice improvements with your sinuses, post-nasal drip, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, energy and weight. Then, start eating dairy again and see how you feel. If you feel worse, you should try to give it up for life.
  • If you can tolerate dairy, use only raw, organic dairy products. I suggest focusing on fermented products like unsweetened yogurt and kefir, occasionally.
  • If you have to feed your child formula from milk, don’t worry. The milk in infant formula is hydrolyzed, or broken down and easier to digest (although it can still cause allergies). Once your child is a year old, switch him or her to real food and almond milk.

Still got milk? I hope not! Remember, dairy is not crucial for good health. I encourage you to go dairy-free and see what it does for you.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.


  1. Thank you for making the distinction between hormone-overloaded, pasteurized, homogenized pesticide juice (aka most milk) and the real deal. Dairy may not be necessary for good health, but fermented milk products can be a part of a healthy diet, especially in short-summered temperate zones where one simply cannot grow their own sesame to make tahini.

    For lactose intolerant people who do still want to drink milk (maybe even while eating some apple pie and watching baseball, no?), lactase supplements can be a huge help. Liquid lactase in particular has been hard to get in the U.S. for a couple of months, but it’s back on the market again: here.

    Molly | July 28th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. Although some of the points you state are supported by research, I do not believe that there is significant support for the full elimination of dairy because the effects of this change could cause more harm than good.

    To my surprise, I found that the role of dairy in the promotion of bone health is indeed in question and has been for years. An article written in 2005 investigated the effects of dairy products and total dietary calcium on bone integrity in children and adults by reviewing existing literature. The authors concluded that there is scant evidence supporting the nutrition guidelines that focus on increasing dairy product consumption to promote bone health (1). In addition, of the thirty-seven studies that investigated supplemented dietary calcium (mostly dairy) intake by controlling for other factors, twenty-seven studies found no relationship between dairy or dietary calcium intake and measures of bone health (1). The nine other studies found a small increase in bone health with the consumption of dairy but the studies were not properly controlled for vitamin D, a nutrient that has a great impact on bone health. Aligning with your suggestion at the end of your article, this study also found that physical activity plays the greatest role in increasing bone growth and development during adolescence (1).

    However, the research that I found did not support your belief that calcium may increase cancer risk. I found two studies that show the opposite being true. The largest comprehensive assessment of the influence of calcium, dairy products, and vitamin D on colorectal cancer risk found that a high intake of calcium reduces the risk of both colon and rectal cancer by as much as forty-five percent (2). Another study that examined the association between dairy, calcium, and breast cancer among Chinese women found a significant inverse relationship between dietary calcium intake and breast cancer risk (3). Women with a high intake of dietary calcium were associated with a sixty-five percent lower risk of breast cancer (3). However, these studies did illustrate how calcium has benefits that dairy products do not have. Both studies controlled for dairy and found no significant association between the consumption of dairy and the reduction of cancer risk. This shows that although calcium may have a protective effect against certain cancers, dairy products most likely do not.

    As for the final truth listed in your article, I consulted an article published in Nutrition Today that considered research on the prevalence and management of lactose intolerance. This article was overall pro-dairy and called the growing trend of avoiding dairy for tolerance reasons a misconception (4). The author says that there is no scientific justification for avoiding milk or other dairy foods, especially because repeated and regular exposure to dairy improves a person’s ability to digest dairy products (4). Although lactose intolerance does exist, most people are truly lactose maldigesters who can eat lactose-containing foods in reasonable portions (4). In fact, many people are misdiagnosed as lactose intolerant because they present gastric symptoms that are similar to those experienced by people with true lactose-intolerance (4). Research agrees with your article by showing how common lactose malabsorption is, but studies also show that if the lactose dose is limited to two or three cups of milk throughout the day, symptoms are negligible (4).

    Although some of your “truths about dairy” are indeed supported by research, I still believe that it might be dangerous to advise the public to eliminate dairy completely. Before making such an extreme suggestion, we should consider which food sources people will likely substitute for dairy products. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are the richest sources of calcium and they are also the least expensive (4). Not everyone can afford the ‘better’ substitutions that you mention like raw, organic products. Even if these products were cheaper, they are probably not as safe as traditional dairy. Research offers interesting insight on raw, organic dairy products. An article published in the New Yorker offered information about these milk products that are not heated or homogenized. The article mentions that there is little scientific evidence that supports the claims of raw milk advocates (5). In fact, there is strong research that says raw milk products can be harmful. A study published by the CDC found that the pathogens present in raw milk are especially harmful to children and people with weakened immune systems (5). The FDA strongly advises against the consumption of raw milk because of these studies that illustrate the great health risk associated with it and the fact that there is no nutritional advantage of consuming raw milk products (5). Another alarming fact noted by this article is that raw milk sales are now illegal in eleven states (5). Based off of this research, I believe it is not appropriate to encourage the consumption of raw milk products.

    If people who cannot afford proper dairy substitutions give up this entire food group, they are likely to substitute with food items that will not benefit their health. If people choose to replace their servings of dairy with more processed carbohydrate snacks are they truly benefitting their bone and overall health? Vegetables are not the answer to the problem either. Spinach, for example, contains a significant amount of calcium but its bioavailability is very low (4). A person would have to consume more than eight cups of spinach in order to absorb the amount of calcium that one serving of milk provides (4). It is also important to consider the contribution that milk and dairy products have on vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 intake. Eliminating dairy will cause more people to be deficient in these nutrients as well as calcium (4). We need to look ahead at the effects that this suggestion could induce before we advocate for the total elimination of dairy products.


    1. Lanou, A., Berkow, S. E., & Barnard, N. D. (2005). Calcium, Dairy Products, and Bone Health in Children and Young Adults: A Reevaluation of the Evidence. Pediatrics, 115(3), 736-743. doi:10.1542/peds.2004-0548

    2. Huncharek, M., Muscat, J., & Kupelnick, B. (2009). Colorectal Cancer Risk and Dietary Intake of Calcium, Vitamin D, and Dairy Products: A Meta-Analysis of 26,335 Cases From 60 Observational Studies. Nutrition & Cancer, 61(1), 47-69. doi:10.1080/01635580802395733

    3. Cai-Xia, Z., Ho, S. C., Jian-Hua, F., Shou-Zhen, C., Yu-Ming, C., & Fang-Yu, L. (2011). Dairy Products, Calcium Intake, and Breast Cancer Risk: A Case-Control Study in China. Nutrition & Cancer, 63(1), 12-20. doi:10.1080/01635581.2010.516478

    4. Moore, B. J. (2003). Dairy Foods. Nutrition Today, 38(3), 82-90. Retrieved from http://uh7qf6fd4h.search.serialssolutions.com/?genre=article&isbn=&issn=0029666X&title=Nutrition+Today&volume=38&issue=3&date=20030501&atitle=Dairy+Foods.&aulast=Moore%2c+Barbara+J.&pages=82-90&sid=EBSCO:Academic+Search+Premier&pid=

    5. Goodyear, D. (2012). Raw deal. New Yorker, 88(11), 32-37. Retrieved from https://web-ebscohost-com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/ehost/detail?sid=67ed5133-49bc-4c1a-80a6-c5219df94137%40sessionmgr104&vid=4&hid=106&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=74635889

    Cassandra | December 8th, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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