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Is drinking milk good for you?

Discover the pros and cons of drinking cow’s milk and other dairy products

In recent years, drinking cow’s milk and similar dairy products has decreased in popularity. Instead, many have turned to drinking plant-based alternatives such as soy, oat, coconut and almond milk.

But, is drinking cow’s milk better than these other kinds of milk? Dairy is denser in nutrients and contains a higher amount of protein, although many people struggle to tolerate the sugar in dairy called lactose.

Keep reading to discover the benefits and drawbacks of drinking dairy, including cow’s milk, goat’s and sheep’s milk, lactose-free options, and plant-based alternatives.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 17-06-2024

What are the benefits of drinking cow’s milk?

Drinking cow’s milk is a convenient way to consume several nutrients. Milk is rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. As it primarily consists of water (87%), it is also an excellent source of hydration.

Cow’s milk is sold in different fat contents: skimmed (1%), semi-skimmed (2%) and full-fat (3.5%). Intake of full-fat milk has been linked Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source to a lower incidence of weight gain and a lower risk of obesity.

Cow’s milk nutrition profile

NUTRITION (per 100 ml) Skimmed Semi-skimmed Full-fat
Calories 42 50 61
Total fat 1 g 2 g 3.3 g
Saturdated fat 0.6 g 1.3 g 1.9 g
Total Carbohydrates 5 g 5 g 5 g
Fibre 0 g 0 g 0 g
Sugar 5 g 5 g 5 g
Protein 3.4 g 3.4 g 3.4 g


Cow’s milk contains calcium, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamins B6 and B12, riboflavin, folate and niacin.

An infographic displaying the different nutrients contained in cow’s milk.

Due to this, dairy milk offers a variety of health benefits. The positive functions of milk drinking include:

  • Increased bone density due to the high concentration of calcium. Calcium consumed during teenagehood will build stronger bones later in life.
  • A high intake of vitamins, such as B6, B12, and vitamin A, contributing to a healthy immune system and energy metabolism. It is thought that the milk can even displace other low-nutrient drinks.
  • Improved muscle repair in athletes after training, due to its protein, vitamins and other components.

Another important thing to look for in what milk product you drink is its vitamin D contents.

In one journal article, it is stated that, without sufficient levels of vitamin D, only 10-15% Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source of calcium is absorbed by the body. For this reason, most cow’s milk products are fortified with vitamin D. Check the label of any milk product you buy, whether dairy or non-dairy, to find its vitamin D contents.

Bone health

As mentioned above, the calcium found in milk and other dairy products helps to promote bone health.

A large study Trusted source ScienceDirect Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source looking at the results of 20 research papers, concluded that the addition of milk to the habitual diet may potentially increase the likelihood of preventing bone loss as it offers the most practical way to meet dietary calcium requirements.

It also adds that incorporating nutrient-packed foods that support bone health into your regular diet, along with consistent physical activity, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol, can contribute to enhancing the strength of your bones. Stronger bones means less risk of health events like bone fractures.

Gut health

According to a review of studies Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source , milk, yoghurt and kefir consumption appear to increase the number of certain families of gut bacteria: lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.

Photo of a woman’s abdomen with a smiley face picture indicating good gut health.

These 'good' bacteria support gut health by improving your digestion and your gut’s microbiome (also known as gut flora).

A healthy gut supports your immune system and contributes to better overall health and well-being.

What are the disadvantages of cow’s milk?

While cow’s milk is highly nutritious, it does have several drawbacks. For many individuals, dairy is hard to tolerate due to a type of sugar called lactose. It can also worsen certain skin conditions and cause allergic reactions.

Skin conditions

Some studies Trusted source Springer Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source suggest that milk consumption might raise levels of IGF-1, a hormone involved in the development of acne. The increase of this hormone has been linked to the proteins contained in milk: casein and whey. However, this association varies Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source between individuals.

To support this finding, another study found that consumption of milk contributed to acne regardless of the composition of the milk (full fat, semi-skimmed or low fat), confirming that the fat or sugar content of milk was not a driver for acne.

If you are suffering from acne, you could explore if cow’s milk contributes to your skin condition. Try temporarily removing it from your diet and substituting it with an alternative milk. If you notice any improvements in your skin after a few weeks, cow’s milk may be a trigger.

Allergies and intolerances

Cow’s milk is one of the main 14 allergens, meaning that many people are allergic to milk and its derived products. An allergy is defined as:

Allergy: An adverse reaction involving your immune system which mistakenly treats a particular food/drink as a threat.

For people who are allergic to cow’s milk, signs and symptoms are quick to appear. Reactions will vary from person to person, but could look like:

  • a skin rash
  • swollen tongue or lips
  • wheezing and chest tightness
  • itchy, red and watery eyes
  • difficulty breathing
  • vomiting and nausea
  • diarrhoea

A milk allergy is usually present from birth and in this instance, there is a very good chance of recovering Trusted source Wiley Online Library Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source . However, milk allergies can occur at any age and the likelihood of and reasons for developing it can vary based on many factors.

A woman holding a glass of milk and clutching her stomach in pain.

A milk intolerance is not as severe as an allergy, although symptoms can be concerning. Unlike an allergy, intolerances are not life-threatening and symptoms usually appear between 2 and 72 hours after consumption of milk.

Common signs of a cow’s milk intolerance include:

If you suspect you have a milk intolerance, the next step is to remove milk and all the other milk-derived products from your diet for a few weeks and then re-introduce products one by one.

Does cow’s milk help with weight loss?

It is difficult to say whether cow’s milk helps with weight loss. This is mostly because the majority of large studies examine the overall intake of dairy products, rather than cow’s milk alone.

For example, a study Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source on the dairy intake of women over 45 (over 11 years) linked a higher dairy intake with a higher risk of becoming overweight. However, a greater intake of high-fat dairy products was associated with less weight gain compared to low-fat products.

Another large study Trusted source Wiley Online Library Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source (examining several research papers and covering over 180,000 participants) found that calorie-restricted dairy consumption had a beneficial impact on body weight. In contrast, a high intake of dairy without calorie restriction was associated with weight gain.

A shorter 8-week intervention study Trusted source ScienceDirect Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source (specifically looking at the impact of cow’s milk intake in overweight individuals) found no difference in body weight among the milk group and the group who weren’t drinking milk. However, the milk group experienced more health benefits by improving some biomarkers and nutrient levels.

Is milk gluten free?

Coeliacs or others who wish to remove gluten from their diet will need to know whether or not the milk they drink is gluten free.

Most dairy milk products are gluten free, and there are many certifiably gluten free plant based milk options. However there are a few things to keep in mind when trying to figure out which milk products are suitable for your needs.

a jug and glass of milk with wheat around it

Dairy milk

While dairy milk is naturally gluten free, flavourings and other ingredients added to some milk products may contain gluten, and so should be avoided by those with an intolerance. If in doubt, always read the label of any dairy product you buy to ensure that the product is safe for you to drink.

While animals that produce milk eat a lot of food high in gluten, this should not be a problem as the gluten has already been broken down. However, there may be small fragments of gluten proteins in milk. This is unlikely to cause problems for people with coeliac disease, but if your gluten intolerance is severe, then you should ask your doctor for advice on what is safe for you to consume.

While most dairy milk products do not contain gluten, those with coeliac disease may still react badly to cow’s milk due to one of the proteins mentioned earlier: casein. In this study Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source , about 50% of patients with coeliac disease had an inflammatory response to cow’s milk similar to that elicited by gluten.

Plant based milk

In contrast to dairy milk, it is harder to make sweeping statements about the gluten contents of plant based milk. Most milk alternatives made from nuts, seeds, coconut, rice, and soy are gluten free, but many oat milk products are not.

Oats themselves are naturally gluten free. However, since they are often grown near wheat and may be processed in factories alongside wheat, oats may become cross-contaminated with gluten.

Companies may claim that their products are gluten free, but the safest way to verify this is to look for a third-party certification on the packaging. This is usually in the form of a small “gluten free” stamp.

What are the benefits of other types of milk?

Goat’s and sheep’s milk

In general, goat’s and sheep’s milk is considered easier to digest compared to cow’s milk. Their composition is also slightly different, despite containing the same types of protein (casein and whey).

Dairy products made from goat’s milk, with three goats pictured in the background.

The main differences are:

  • Sheep and goat’s milk contain less casein protein, which is responsible for inflammation. This means they are less likely to cause skin problems.
  • Cow’s milk has higher quantities of another type of casein, making it harder to digest and more likely to lead to intolerances.
  • Sheep’s milk has the most protein, vitamins and minerals (more than goat and cow’s milk). It also has the best calcium-to-phosphorus ratio, making it ideal for calcium absorption.
Properties Benefits (over cow’s milk)
Goat’s milk
  • Less casein protein than cow’s milk
  • Higher carotene
  • Higher in fat and calories
  • Alkaline in nature
  • Causes fewer skin problems than cow’s milk
  • Easier to digest
  • Higher in calcium
  • Good for those with acidity problems
Sheep’s milk
  • Contains more protein
  • Best calcium to phosphorus ratio
  • Easier to digest
  • Richer in vitamins and minerals
Lactose free milk
  • Added lactase enzyme (to break down lactose)
  • Same nutrients as regular cow’s milk
  • Suitable for lactose intolerant people

If you struggle with an intolerance to cow’s milk, you may find that sheep’s or goat’s milk is a suitable alternative.

Lactose-free milk

For people who are lactose intolerant, lactose-free milk can be an option. Lactose intolerant individuals lack the lactase enzyme which would normally break down lactose (the sugar naturally found in milk).

This means that drinking regular cow’s milk will likely cause unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, gas or loose stools.

Lactose-free milk is made by adding the lactase enzyme to the milk. This will separate the lactose into 2 distinct sugars which can be digested. This milk may taste sweeter than standard milk but contains the same nutrients.

What about dairy milk alternatives (plant based milk)?

Milk alternatives are derived from nuts (almond, cashew, hazelnut, coconut), beans (soya) or grains (oats, rice).

These milks are often made with added nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins to enhance their nutritional value to a level more comparable to cow’s milk. However, they are still less dense in nutrients even with these modifications.

Almond milk naturally low in calories and saturated fat - but it’s very low in protein (unlike cow’s milk)
Soya milk slightly more protein and is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, making it closer to possessing the health benefits of cow’s milk
Oat milk higher in carbs and lower in protein, but it does provide some additional dietary fibre
Coconut higher in saturated fat and lower in protein compared to cow’s milk, but it offers a unique flavour and texture that can improve certain recipes

The nutritional profile of alternative types of “milk” varies from brand to brand. Many plant based milk products contain added sugars, oils and gums to provide a closer resemblance to cow’s milk.

Therefore, if you avoid dairy products and need to choose an alternative milk, it is important to read the product label to check the list of ingredients.

If you are looking for a closer substitute in terms of nutrients, a no-sugar soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D can be a good choice.

If you choose a milk derived from nuts, opt for a brand which has a higher percentage of nuts and no sugar or preservatives. Usually, the products with fewer ingredients are the healthiest as they may be free from unnecessary additives. However, the overall nutritional content is not entirely based on this.

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