Milk super-guide: building muscle, fat-loss, health

Is milk good for building muscle and getting bigger? What about for fat-loss? Milk isn’t healthy though—all that saturated fat? Oh, and it gives you acne too, right?

In the past, the muscle-building community celebrated cow milk. There were even whole diets built around it with GOMAD (a gallon of milk a day), and it’s more reasonable cousin LOMAD (litre of milk a day.)

But it’s also been the target of several books and demonized in popular diets. For example, the popular diet Whole 30 has people cut out all dairy, including milk.

There are concerns about health due to the saturated fats which could cause high LDL cholesterol levels. Then there are hormones in milk like IGF-1, which some worry about how it could cause acne (among other things). And there are even associations between milk and prostate cancer. All that, and we haven’t even talked about the A1 and A2 debate. (This debate even led to an agricultural professor claiming the A1 protein is the devil in the milk.)

So what’s the story? Is milk good for our health? And can it help us get bigger, stronger, and leaner?

table of contents

Chapter 1: But… will it kill me?
Chapter 2: What about acne and milk?
Chapter 3: Trans-fats are bad for health—isn’t there trans-fat in milk?
Chapter 4: Milk and becoming more muscular, leaner, and fitter
Chapter 5: Is milk good for building muscle?
Chapter 6: Is milk good for fat-loss?
Chapter 7: Low-fat milk versus whole milk
Chapter 8: Organic milk is probably worth the money
Chapter 9: What if I can’t drink milk? (Or someone I love?)
Chapter 10: The A1 versus A2 debate—inflammation and milk intolerance
Chapter 11: Processing of milk (homogenization, filtering, chocolate)
Chapter 12: What milk is the best milk?
Summary


But… will it kill me?

I guess there’s no point outlining the research on if milk could help you get bigger or leaner—if it’s going to give you cancer or some other horrible side-effect in the long run.

So, first, let’s talk about if milk is healthy for us.

While humans have eaten dairy products for a long time, drinking fresh milk is somewhat of a new thing. It only takes a few hours for fresh milk to spoil. In the past, the only ways to fix milk from spoiling was to either make condensed milk or to make things from milk like cheese and salted butter.

Refrigeration solved the problem of spoiling, but it was only common after WWII. Then there was the problem of too much bacterial contamination, which pasteurization solved. (More recently we have UHT milk, which processes the milk at such a high temperature that allows milk to not spoil even without refrigeration.)

So the idea of drinking fresh milk isn’t as time tested as other types of dairy. So, is it good for us?

Is milk healthy?

In 2016 there was a meta-analysis of all the research on if milk was good or bad for our health. The data said:

  • Milk helps with body composition making people lose fat easier while keeping their muscle. Since many being overweight, obese, or weak can carry many associated health risks, this is good for health.
  • Milk can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially strokes. An even more recent review from 2019 on milk and cardiovascular disease found the same thing—both whole-fat and non-fat dairy doesn’t harm cardio health (2019 review https://academic.oup.com/advances/article-abstract/10/suppl_2/S164/5489436.)
  • Milk and dairy products correlate with a neutral to reduced risk with type 2 diabetes.
  • Milk can help improve bone mineral density. (Though the research says it’s not clear if milk reduces bone fractures. My guess is that this is because milk can’t solve this bone density problem on its own. Perhaps drinking milk needs to be paired with reasonable sun exposure to help move calcium out of the gut and into the right places in the body. (study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12520530)
  • Milk is associated with a lower chance of getting colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, gastric cancer, and breast cancer.
  • Milk is not associated with risk of pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, or lung cancer. That means that meaning that it doesn’t impact these cancers in a good or bad way.
  • Milk has an inconsistent relationship to prostate cancer across studies (some good, some bad). Although Dr. Brad Dieter writes, even in those studies, the risk is still incredibly low. If prostate cancer is a concern for you, I’d personally focus on getting reasonable sun exposure and focus on making other lifestyle improvements. (study, study, study, study)
  • And finally, the consumption of milk and dairy products was not associated with all-cause mortality.

So, the researchers take after reviewing all the evidence? Milk is nutritious and helps people to reach their goals, it protects against some diseases and cancers, and with very few downsides (if at all.)


What about acne and milk?

Acne is an issue that mainly affects young people and those struggling with obesity (study). Could milk impact acne?

In one 2018 review on acne and milk, researchers evaluated observational studies covering nearly 72,000 people.

The verdict? There is a correlation between milk and acne but only for those with “moderate-to-severe” levels of acne.

But if people only had mild acne, then drinking milk has no association with it.

Interestingly, researchers found a stronger correlation between skim milk and acne, compared to low-fat milk (1 and 2%) and whole-fat milk with acne.

On the other hand, a later 2018 review about milk and acne had this to say:

“The observational studies may suffer from bias from confounding and reverse causation, are unable to indicate causality of the relationship between dairy and acne, and unable to prove preventive effects of abstaining from dairy. Only one study exists on milk intake and acne. The study is uncontrolled and unblinded and is based on medical students who drank milk or consumed other potential acne provoking foods… Thus, there is still a knowledge gap with respect to whether dairy intake is causally associated with acne, acne flare, or acne severity and to what extent.”

It seems like milk might cause acne, but we don’t know for sure. And if it could cause acne, it doesn’t always, making it hard to figure out what’s going on.

Side note: cheese and yogurt have no connection to acne. We don’t know why, but the fermentation may play a role. (This study says fermentation reduces IGF-1 that is in milk down to next to nothing if the PH levels are correct. And fermentation also lowers the level of lactose.)

So what’s going on here? Does milk cause acne or not? Well, without enough solid evidence, the clues lead us to look at the details of acne.

What causes acne?

In this review on green tea and acne, the researchers do a quick overview of acne, and they write that acne can be caused by four ways:

  1. too much sebum production
  2. disrupted keratinization in the pilosebaceous follicles (the opening of these follicles are what we call “pores”)
  3. too much growth of the P. acnes bacteria
  4. inflammation around pilosebaceous follicles

And in this 2019 review article on acne, it discusses inflammation being the main mechanism of acne. (lost link, find it)

Researchers mentioned that those with more acne, normally have low levels of omega-3’s—a fatty acid that helps to deal with inflammation. (Later on, we’ll discuss how organic milk taken from cows feeding on pasture, instead of corn silage, have higher levels of omega-3s and other key fatty acids.)

Researchers said we could fight acne inflammation with things that include resveratrol and tea catechins—so grapes, peanuts, blueberries, cacao, and green tea are on the menu.

Speaking of green tea, not only packed with antioxidants and can help deal with inflammation, but it can also help to reduce sebum output. Perhaps a nice cup of matcha tea is in order? (study)

Milk, IGF-1, sebum, and acne

Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) is a growth hormone mainly produced by our liver. What does it do? Well, if you’ve got problems with your IGF-1 gene, it can cause dwarfism (Laron syndrome). And a deficiency in IGF-1 causes underdeveloped muscles and weak nails and hair. (article)

We need IGF-1 to feel strong and lean. The more protein you eat, the higher levels of IGF-1 you’ll have (study). Drinking milk will increase our IGF-1 levels. (Precision Nutrition writes that this effect is small, only increasing IGF-1 levels by 2–10%.)

The problem with IGF-1 is that while it builds up our muscles, bones, hair, and strength—it might also come with a long-term cost to our lifespan.

IGF-1 operates in part through mTORC1—like a general contractor for homes but for your cells. mTORC1 promotes many anabolic processes, like muscle protein synthesis through cell growth. Now, mTORC-1 also does autophagy—self-devouring—to kill bad cells.

According to this article, studies show that when you slow down mTORC-1, autophagy goes up. So your cells get cleaned up, but you’re also breaking down your body. You’re getting smaller and weaker.

When you speed up mTORC1, you are building cells, you can get stronger and bigger—but it reduces your body’s ability to clean up. The researchers admit that little is known about mTORC2, and it’s many processes. (As they learn more it’s revealing more insights into beating cancers and diabetes.)

The mTOR pathway is often described in biology journals as a double-edged sword—meaning that a positive side effect often comes with a downside.

According to this review, mTOR is the regulator that handles protein synthesis to build muscle, cell growth, and also aging.

“Intriguingly, all-natural plant-derived polyphenols like EGCG, resveratrol, curcumin, genistein, and others are natural inhibitors of mTORC1”

EGCG is one of the main compounds in green tea. Resveratrol in grape skins, blueberries, cacao, and peanuts. Curcumin is in turmeric powder (think of curry, which is synonymous with turmeric), and genistein is in legumes like soybeans.

Maybe there’s a way to optimize the way the mTOR pathway in our body works? To get all the growth we possibly can, but then also give the body everything they need to do all the clean-up they need to do.

Can we avoid antioxidants around the time that we train? (Examine.com) Something like lift weights, have some milk (or whey) and boost our growth. Then after a couple of hours, go back to eating foods with lots of good stuff like antioxidants to help our bodies stay healthy? It’ll be interesting to see what the research will find in the coming years.

Cow health and changes in IGF

As we just covered, milk contains IGF-1, which is a growth hormone. That hormone is bound to a carrier protein called IGFBP (insulin-like growth factor-binding protein.)

Interestingly, milking a cow four times a day, decreased the IGFBP-1, -3, and -5. Research has found that IGFBP can help enhance or downplay IGF-1 depending on the cell types.

And cows diagnosed with mastitis—which is either an infection or trauma to the udder—had some of these binding proteins all screwed up, sometimes ramping up the amount by 3500%. Mastitis can even play with other ratios like reducing the fat output of the milk. (study)

How could these radically changed ratios change the way of body’s digest the milk? We don’t know yet, but it’s never a bad idea to try getting milk from a trusted source, a farm or organization that treats their cows well. It could play out in the quality of the milk and how well your body can process it.

Organic milk and IGF

There’s an acid in milk called CLA, and it plays a role in IGF-1. Researchers think it could play a regulatory role in IGF-1—making IGF-1 act stronger or weaker, depending on other circumstances like omega-3 levels. (study)

As we’ll talk about later, organic milk is certified for cows to be raised on pasture at least 1/3 of the year. Organic milk has a different fatty-acid breakdown compared to regular milk—some of the biggest differences being increased CLA and omega-3 ratios. So going organic (and whole fat) could be another potential way to solve these issues surrounding milk and IGF, sebum, and even inflammation. (study)

Can I do anything else about sebum?

If you want to drink milk, and in general become bigger and stronger, both of those will increase IGF-1. More IGF-1 is linked to more sebum output (study), and too much sebum output was one of the reasons for acne.

So learning to deal with both sebum and inflammation may be the best route to being strong but also acne-free.

Let’s first recognize that sebum isn’t “bad.” It’s a substance our bodies make that is made up of various fats. It’s what makes our skin and hair oily. Researchers believe that sebum helps to create a stronger skin barrier, preventing skin aging, creating water resistance, and protecting our skin from sunburns and UV radiation. It may also help to provide a home for good bacteria on our skin and deliver pheromones. (study, study)

Sebum output also seems related to our sex hormones. Guys get more affected by sebum output compared to women. And estrogen seems to inhibit sebum production a bit, which is why some women say they take the pill to clear up acne.

Is there a way to fight sebum output?

  • Drugs. Honestly, I’m frightened by the long list of side-effects (and horror stories) by drugs like Isotretinoin (brand name is Accutane). It changes DNA expression and shrinks sebum glands and therefore, sebum output. Researchers still don’t know how Isotretinoin does this, even after 25 years of research. This drug comes with a ton of side effects (depression, hair loss, and way worse things) (article, study). We’d personally avoid it.
  • Topical creams like vitamin A.
  • Apparently, applying L-carnitine to your face could work? A popular supplement, L-carnitine is an amino acid, normally found in meat (the redder it is, the more carnitine there is.)
  • Eat more foods with vitamin A. Our bodies need vitamin A to turn it into retinoic acid. Having enough of that acid will help prevent keratin problems, which should help to beat acne. Not only that, but according to a 2019 study, getting more vitamin A also helps to reduce the second most common type of skin cancer. Five great sources of vitamin A foods are beef liver, cod liver oil, sweet potato, carrots, and spinach. On the note of milk, organic milk has more beta-carotene, which gets converted into vitamin A. Conventional cows need to supplement with vitamin A. (study) Beta-carotene is what gives the red/orange colour in carrots and sweet potato. Milk with higher levels of beta-carotene will look a bit more yellow. (Getting more beta-carotene will also make your skin more attractive.)
  • Sun exposure to get vitamin D. Those with higher vitamin D levels had less acne and less inflammation. Vitamin D may affect the way keratin and sebum works. Aside from the sun causing the chemical reaction to make vitamin D, it may also help by drying out the face a bit). Staying lean is critical for having good vitamin D levels since those who carry too much fat are at risk of a vitamin D deficiency. (study, study)
  • If you’re drinking milk, try organic. While milk increases sebum, and more sebum is related to acne, organic milk might help to fight against the acne bacteria. Organic milk has more linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). These acids are in the actual sebum your body makes, and it gets converted to sapienic acid, which has strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. So drinking organic milk would have more of these acne-fighting fatty acids, which might help to keep acne at bay. (study) So even though drinking organic milk might not reduce the oiliness of your skin, it may help to make it less acne-prone.

Wrapping up with milk and acne

Building muscle, in general, seems at odds with acne due to focusing more on building up, rather than cleaning up.

Research points to those with moderate to severe acne might do worst with milk, probably because they’re already suffering from some other problems that can also cause acne. Possibly too much inflammation, extra bacterial growth, or some other sort of dietary or lifestyle issue. Adding in some milk may just add more for the body to deal with (even if it’s doing a good thing, like building muscle.)

And then those people with no acne likely already have a better lifestyle, nutrition, and skin genetics. So adding in some milk won’t be enough to trigger acne for them.

If you’re focusing on getting bigger and stronger, you may already be dealing with acne. So anything we can do to help fix acne naturally through diet or lifestyle can help.

  • Fight against inflammation. Eat a lot of anti-inflammatory foods like fish for omega-3’s, grapes for resveratrol, and legumes. Then drink green tea for EGCG and other phytonutrients. If you hate the idea of eating lots of curries or drinking turmeric tea (like I do), then you can take curcumin in a gelatin capsule like a supplement. You may also want to try organic milk for more anti-inflammatory fatty acids. Lastly, scroll down and look for the A1 vs. A2 debate (the type of cow changes the output of a certain amino acid in the proteins), as switching to A2 milk may reduce inflammation as well. Lastly, eating more nitric oxide boosting foods could help fight against acne, like beets, garlic, dark leafy greens, nuts, citrus fruits, etc. (study)
  • Fight against overactive sebum. Get enough sunshine, especially for vitamin D. Drink green tea, as it will reduce sebum. A topical cream with vitamin A (retinol) will reduce sebum. And consider trying organic milk, which has more ALA. ALA will add anti-bacterial compounds to your sebum, theoretically making it less likely to get infected with the acne bacteria.
Cows lazing around in the sun
Cows lazing around in the sun

Trans-fats are bad for health—isn’t there trans-fat in milk?

Yes, there are trans-fats in milk, but they are naturally occurring, not industrially produced, and they’re made of different acids. Here’s a quote from a 2015 review on saturated fat and trans fat on cardiovascular health and mortality: (just a heads up, a ruminant is an “even-toed” mammal, like a cow, sheep, deer, giraffe, etc.)

“The major industrially produced trans fatty acids in the food supply are elaidic acid isomers, and the major ruminant derived trans fatty acid is vaccenic acid; both share the characteristic of having at least one double bond in the “trans-” rather than “cis-” configuration.”

In English? Both industrial and natural trans-fat are technically “trans-” as a type, but they’re different acids. And it seems like the industrial type of acid is the one that’s correlated with bad cardiovascular health.

Plus, in this study, they write that our bodies know what to do with the cow-made trans-fats. For example, one of the main trans-fats is vassenic acid, and it gets converted into conjugated linoleic acid. CLA, yes, the same anti-cancer, fat-burning, anti-inflammation fatty-acid that keeps coming up. (study, study)

Anyways, it seems like the trans-fats from milk isn’t that bad for us compared to industrial trans-fats, and it may even be good for us.

Back to the 2015 review, the researcher said that even if the natural trans-fat from animals is later found to be bad for us, it’s such a small amount of trans-fat compared to the amount of industrial trans-fat normally found in processed foods. That’s not even to mention all the net benefits that would still come from dairy.


Milk and becoming more muscular, leaner, and fitter

With all the health concerns out of the way—how could milk make us stronger, even more ripped, and full of energy on demand?

McMaster University prof of Kinesiology and researcher Dr Stuart Phillips says that milk has the three R’s:

  • Rehydrate
  • Refuel (glycogen)
  • Repair (highest quality of protein)

When looking at the breakdown of milk, it’s just an all-around next-level drink. If a team created it in a lab, it would have the media writing about how it was the giant leap in food, sports nutrition, and more.

Milk is nutritious & the highest quality protein

Dairy foods (milk, cheese, and yogurt) have all nine essential amino acids and are among the highest levels of quality when it comes to protein. Plant-based proteins found in legumes, grains, nuts, and vegetables are often missing some essential amino acids and are more difficult to digest. So they score lower in terms of protein quality. That means you’ll need to eat more plant-based foods to get the same amount of protein compared to milk. This makes plant-based protein not as good as the main source of protein when it comes to getting stronger or leaner. (Though they’re still excellent foods with other benefits, and you should eat lots of them.)

Researchers have found that having three servings of milk (or dairy) would get most people 70% of the recommended calcium and vitamin D, around 35% of vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin B-12. Lastly, it’d get them around 25% for protein, potassium, zinc, and choline.


Is milk good for building muscle?

Short answer: yes!

Long answer—

Getting enough protein to build muscle

Milk can help you hit your protein targets. A cup of milk (250ml) is around 8–9 grams of protein. (source)

Because it’s a liquid, milk is incredibly quick to have, and it’s easy on the stomach even if you’re already full. It’s fairly cheap, and you can find it almost everywhere—even at many fast-food restaurants. If you find your meal is just a little bit too low in protein, it can often be rounded up by having a cup of milk.

The best quality source of protein

The protein in milk is the top-scoring type of protein, which means milk has all the essential amino acids, and it’s incredibly easy to digest. Your body will be able to use the nutrients in milk much more efficiently compared to other lower-quality protein sources.

Protein Quality Score, Best Proteins
Milk claims the top spots for protein quality

Milk is mainly made up of whey and casein—with whey being the most studied and best supplements you can use for building muscle (and staying lean.) With milk, you’re just getting whey and casein in their complete form, along with all the other good things milk offers.

Milk seems to have other muscle-building properties other than just lots of protein

Later on, we’ll discuss whole fat milk versus skim milk. We cover a 2006 study where one group was drinking whole fat milk with 8.8 grams of protein per cup. The other group was drinking skim milk with matching calories, which meant they were getting almost twice as much protein—14.5 grams of protein. The group drinking the whole fat milk with less protein built more muscle. Wait—why would the group getting less protein build more muscle? This stumped researchers until they realized there could be some other anabolic properties in milk, especially in the fats.

In a 2007 study, they gave one group skim milk and another group soy milk with an equal amount of 18.5 grams of protein. Even though they had matching amounts of protein, those who were drinking the skim milk had better muscle gains.

Milk, especially whole fat milk, is great for muscle gains.

Milk and performance output

In a 2019 review on athletic performance and recovery and milk, researchers found that some studies showed that milk helped with performance and recovery. But they found conflicting studies that said milk had no effect. It could be due to the timing, the type of milk, the fitness differences in the study participants, or having enough milk in each serving to get the benefits.

But all in all, in terms of performance, milk might help with:

  • Keeping our maximal effort high as the workout continues
  • Reducing post-exercise soreness and tiredness in both men and women

The researchers said more research needs to be done, especially blinded studies. We can’t wait to see what data researchers will bring forth in the coming years.

Milk can help with recovery after training

In a 2009 study, they compared cereal with milk against drinking an electrolyte and a carb sports drink. The researchers found that the milk performed just as well as the sports drink in recovering after a training session. (We’d just caution to avoid cereal fortified with iron if you’re a man, as it may negatively impact your cardiovascular health.)

And in a study of women doing resistance training, researchers compared drinking milk to drinking a carb drink of the same amount of calories to recover after a workout. Those drinking milk recovered better by building more muscle and even managed to burn fat at the same time. (study)

In this 2019 study on recovery, researchers write:

“milk is at least comparable and often out performs most commercially available recovery drinks, but is available at a fraction of the cost, making it a cheap and easy option to facilitate post-exercise recovery. Milk ingestion post-exercise has also been shown to attenuate subsequent energy intake and may lead to more favourable body composition changes with exercise training. This means that those exercising for weight management purposes might be able to beneficially influence post-exercise recovery, whilst maintaining the energy deficit created by exercise.”

Looking to gain weight by bulking?

Milk is an amazing tool for bulking, even though research has found that milk is incredibly satisfying and helps to keep people bodyweight stable. So how could it help? Well, most people trying to gain weight, want to improve their BMI through muscle, not by getting fatter.

Milk can help with a bulk, especially whole fat milk (because it has more calories and anabolic properties) because milk will help:

  • Build muscle faster. Protein, other key nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin k2, magnesium, potassium, CLA, b vitamins, and much much more.
  • Get enough calories if you’ve got a small stomach. While milk is extremely satisfying, and it naturally helps people stay lean, it can be pretty helpful in overfeeding to get bigger. This is because milk is a liquid with no chewing. So even if your stomach is full to the brim and you’re satisfied, if you need more calories to grow, it’s easy to have a glass of milk.
  • It could help you not overdo the bulk and gain too much fat. While there are many muscle-building properties of milk, there are also fat-burning properties of milk. For example, the CLA compound in milk has been found to inhibit fat gain, promotes burning fat, and helps with heart health (review). (There’s more CLA in organic milk due to being pasture-fed, and CLA is found in the milk fat.)
  • Milk fat contains dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. That should help with building muscle outside of having lots of protein (and all other sorts of amazing ingredients). (study) Having enough saturated fats may also help with testosterone levels. (study)
  • Milk might help to cover your bases in protein absorption speeds. Milk contains both whey, which is absorbed fast, and casein, which is absorbed slowly. Milk has both and could lengthen the process of muscle protein synthesis compared to either just having whey or casein. (study)
Fresh milk and a snack
Fresh milk and a delicious dessert

Is milk good for fat-loss?

Dairy, including milk, may help people avoid getting fat to begin with

In general, dairy foods seem to help people maintain a healthy body weight because of the way dairy can help people’s appetites work properly. It helps people to feel satisfied. (study, study)

There could be many reasons why dairy is especially good for this. For example, women deficient in calcium may have appetite control problems (study), and dairy is one of the best sources of calcium.

But perhaps dairy is so good for a proper appetite because it’s a blend of whey (20%) and casein (80%). Whey might help with people feeling satisfied right away, and casein, with it’s slower absorption, helping people to feel satisfied longer into the future.

Or perhaps it’s because milk is fairly high in protein. We know that eating more protein can cut down on snacking by making it less enticing.

The protein source might matter as well. We don’t know the whole story yet, it could be the protein structure, the high protein quality score, or the way dairy stimulates GI hormones. But what we do know that milk is great for restoring appetite control helping people maintain a healthy body weight. (review on dairy on appetite, body weight, and body composition, review)

What about using milk and dairy specifically when eating in a calorie deficit?

In 2012, a meta-analysis of 14 studies found that dairy may not cause people’s weight to change without eating less food to get into a calorie deficit.

But while their weight didn’t change much, having dairy like milk did help body composition by burning fat and building lean mass.

And when people did eat less food to cut calories, those who had dairy kept their muscle and strength better than those who didn’t have any dairy.

In a 2016 review found more of the same: those who were cutting calories while having lots of dairy lost more weight and fat overall while keeping more lean mass.

In a 2019 study, researchers studied over 12,000 people found that drinking one serving of milk made you have more lean mass. Not only that, but you’d get a better ratio of subcutaneous to visceral fat. That means you’d not only be stronger, but you’d get more “good” fat and less of the bad kind around your organs.

Milk can help you get lean

So, milk is a great option to include in your diet as you burn fat. You’ll still need to eat less food overall, and exercise (lift and do some cardio), to meaningfully change your body weight. But milk can be a great tool to help because:

  • it’s the highest-quality source of protein (and whey, casein, and other top protein supplements are made out of milk)
  • it has a lot of protein in it per serving, helping you feel satisfied
  • it has lots of other vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids that will help your body work optimally and to keep your strength like muscle

Low-fat milk versus whole milk

On the Harvard Medical School blog, they say to go with skim milk—the only reason being to limit saturated fat intake. In the 2019 Canada’s Food Guide, we see much of the same, with a recommendation for low-fat milk and cheeses.

Eating too many saturated fats is commonly believed to contribute to bad cholesterol levels, and then that would cause heart disease. So, one way to combat this high level would be to drink skim milk.

But does high LDL cholesterol levels actually cause heart disease?

In a 2016 review of all the research, researchers wrote:

“The cholesterol hypothesis predicts that LDL-C will be associated with increased all-cause and [cardiovascular] mortality. Our review has shown either a lack of an association or an inverse association between LDL-C and both all-cause and [cardiovascular] mortality… Our review provides the basis for more research about the cause of atherosclerosis and [cardiovascular disease] and also for a re-evaluation of the guidelines for cardiovascular prevention, in particular, because the benefits from statin treatment have been exaggerated.”

More research:

An evidence-based editorial authored by 11 experts, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, covered a large meta-analysis that found that saturated fat isn’t associated with cardiovascular disease.

The proposed that the main problem of atherothrombosis can be simply solved by walking at least 150 minutes a week.

The authors write that to fight cardiovascular disease, and we should focus on shifting the message to walking for 22 minutes a day and eating real food.

(More reading: article, commentary in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, 2010 meta-analysis)

And in a published 2018 review titled “Dairy Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: Do We Really Need to Be Concerned?,” the authors conclude:

“Previous research indicated that reducing serum cholesterol levels would lower cardiovascular risk, however, [cardiovascular disease] are a multifaceted disease, which requires a multifaceted approach to primary prevention.”

“Despite the previous concerns about dairy product consumption due to the [saturated fatty acids] content, it has been shown that not all [saturated fatty acids] are created equal and that the presence of specific fatty acids (C14:0,C15:0, C17:0, CLA and trans-palmitoleic) in circulation are associated with a lower incidence of several cardiometabolic disease…”

“Several meta-analyses point to the resounding conclusion that, although dairy products contain a high [saturated fatty acids] content, their consumption induces a positive or neutral effect on human cardiovascular health (study, study, study)”

Still want to limit your intake of saturated fat?

You can lower your saturated fats elsewhere in your diet. Aside from finding them in dairy (milk, cheese, cream, butter, etc.), you’ll commonly find saturated fats in the fats of meat, egg yolks, chocolate, and coconut oil.

But it’s also found in lots of processed foods like hot dogs, cold cuts, fried foods with palm oil, etc.

So one way to get less saturated fat would be

  • to cut the fat off when eating steak
  • buying “extra lean” ground meat
  • and staying away from processed meat (this is generally a good idea since it is associated with cancer)

The benefits of drinking whole-fat milk

In the fat of milk, there are approximately 400 different types of fatty acids (article). And the fatty acids make-up in milk will be different depending on the breed of the cow, what they’re eating, and even what season it is.

Vitamin D is naturally in milk, and since it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, it’s only in the fat. The more fat you remove from the milk, the less vitamin D there is. That’s why in lower-fat milk, they need to standardize the amount of vitamin D and need to add it back in.

And it seems like organic milk, where cows are raised on pasture for at least 1/3 of the year, also has quite a different fat composition. That means that if you’re drinking skim organic milk, you’d be cutting out even more good stuff. (More on organic milk down below.)

Whole-fat milk builds muscle better than fat-free milk

In a 2006 study, they had people do ten sets of a knee extension exercise, and then they were split into groups that had:

  1. fat-free milk (56 calories, 8.8 grams of protein)
  2. whole fat milk (150 calories, 8.0 grams of protein)
  3. matching-calorie-fat-free milk (150 calories, 14.5 grams of protein)

Which group do you think got the most muscle gains? Well, the researchers were surprised when the whole-fat milk group was the clear winner. How could that be possible—it had less protein in it? The researchers write:

“These data suggest that some property of [whole milk] enhanced the amount of threonine, and possibly phenylalanine, utilized for muscle protein synthesis. If true, it is not clear which property of [whole milk] was responsible for increased utilization.”

We already know that the fat of the milk is home to around 400 different acids, and it’s clear that we don’t know enough about the synergy of them.

Whole fat milk might help with not becoming fat

So perhaps whole-fat milk helps with building muscle, but it can’t help with burning fat, right? It has more calories, after all.

Well, let’s take a look.

In this meta-analysis on high-fat dairy, researchers found that having full-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of becoming obese.

In this study on men aged 40-60 years old, those who ate butter, full-fat milk, and cream had less of a gut. (study)

In a study of nearly 20,000 women over nine years, the women who consistently had whole fat milk and cheese had an inverted relationship with weight gain. Meaning that they didn’t get fatter over the nine years, while those who drank no milk or low-fat milk didn’t get those same benefits.

What’s going on here? Why are people drinking the full-fat whole milk staying leaner?

Do they feel better? Are they healthier?

In these two studies (study, study), having full-fat milk was associated with having a lower risk of metabolic syndrome.

In this 2016 study, those who had dairy fat had less risk of getting diabetes.

Perhaps all the fatty acids in the milk fat are contributing all the main health benefits and maintaining the synergy of the milk the cow had produced.

And perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch that if you feel good and you’re healthy, you’re more likely to move about and exercise.

Based on the data, it seems like whole fat milk is better than skim milk.

But that doesn’t mean that skim milk is worthless. It’s still an incredibly nutrient-dense, high-protein drink, making it a great option still. But it may have had some of its power lost when it comes to staying healthy, lean, and developing strength.

It seems the only benefit that skim milk seems to bring is by reducing calories by cutting the fat out. When you compare a glass of whole milk to a glass of skim milk, there’s only a 70 calorie difference. Even if someone were eating less to burn fat, and they had a couple of glasses of milk a day, it’d probably be wise to stick with the whole fat milk. They’d just need to walk another 20-ish minutes more each day to make up that gap. Not only would they get the benefits of extra movement for their heart, but all the extra benefits only found inside the milk fat.

Different breed of cow outside
Snuggling cows outside

Organic milk is probably worth the money

Research shows that many things impact the quality and make-up of milk. Things like:

  • The breed of cow and genetics. There are black and white cows, brown cows, etc. and they all have different genetics.
  • The environment, management, and even the season. For example, there’s more of the CLA compound (burns fat, anti-cancer, keep muscle mass) in grass-fed cows during the summer.
  • The cow’s health.
  • The diet. For example, if you feed them corn or other carbohydrates, the fat ratio of their milk drops, and the make-up of the milk changes.

In this study, researchers found:

“The output of vitamins in milk was within farm positively correlated to supply of vitamins from roughage.”

In other words, what the cows eats matters because that’s what can then be found in her milk.

And in this study, it found that organic milk had 62% more omega-3s than conventional milk. Linolenic acid increased by 60%, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) by 32%, and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) by 19%. And remember that CLA fatty acid, that people take as a supplement? That went up by 18%. (study, study)

The researchers write that there are widespread recommendations to drink low-fat or even non-fat milk, and that presents a problem because:

“However, these recommendations are based primarily on the serum-LDL (“bad”)-cholesterol-raising effect of dairy fat, a single marker of risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). They give little or no consideration to the CVD-risk reducing components in milk fat, especially omega-3 (ω-3) fatty acids (FAs), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), the possibly beneficial trans FAs, trans-18:1 and trans-16:1, protective minerals, and a beneficial effect on serum HDL (“good”) cholesterol.”

What makes organic different? The standards set by the U.S. National Organic Program say that the cows must be eating from the pasture at least 120 days, or 1/3 of the year. The rest of the time they’re normally fed forage-based feeds, like hay. This produces better milk nutritionally compared to conventional.

Organic milk also has a better balance between omega-3s and omega-6 fats. Why does that matter?

“Many studies and reviews have concluded that reducing dietary [omega]-6/[omega]-3 ratios during adulthood will lower risks of CVD, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, overweight, and violent behavior.”

“Expected benefits from reduced dietary [omega]-6/[omega]-3 ratios, coupled with increased long-chain [omega]-3 intakes, are almost certainly greatest for women hoping to bear a child, for pregnant women and their babies, and for infants and children through adolescence. High [omega]-6/[omega]-3 ratios and/or low long-chain [omega]-3 intakes predispose the developing fetus to a wide range of adverse neurological and immune system disorders, and can also impair the visual system. “

“Recent research shows that high LA/ALA dietary ratios depress long-chain [omega]-3 levels in the blood of pregnant women by two mechanisms—by depressing the conversion of ALA to long-chain [omega]-3s and by blocking incorporation of pre-formed, long-chain [omega]-3s into phospholipids.”

“Adults are able to convert a small fraction of ALA to EPA, DPA, and—mainly in women—to DHA. However, excess dietary LA competes with ALA for the enzymes involved in these conversions. One study found that an LA intake of 30 g/day reduces ALA conversion to DHA by ∼40%, while others have shown that certain diets allow pre-menopausal women to convert up to 3-fold more DPA to DHA than males. Accordingly, the improved LA/ALA ratio in organic milk (2.6 organic vs. 6.3 conventional) secondarily benefits consumers by enhancing conversion of ALA to long-chain [omega]-3s.”

In the end, the researchers of this study recommend organic milk, particularly to pregnant women, infants, children, and those with elevated cardiovascular disease risk. But it seems like it’s the best option for everyone, should you be able to make it work into your budget.

You can “see” pasture-raised cow milk

In this study, it found you could even see the difference with pasture-fed cows. The milk becomes more yellow due to having higher levels of beta-carotene, lutein, vitamin E, and sesquiterpenes. That orange-red colour from beta-carotene is a key part of making vitamin A.

Organic Whole-fat Milk and CLA

We’ve touched on CLA a few times now. CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is a popular fat-burning supplement. (supplement on Examine.com)

Not only that, but it has been found to fight cancer, diabetes, obesity, and fatty plaques in the arteries (heart disease).(paper)

In this 1999 study, they fed cows a variety of diets—corn silage, alfalfa hay, going out to pasture, etc.

They found the cows that ate 100% of their diet naturally from the pasture had 500% more CLA levels compared to their normal diets. 22mg of CLA per gram of milk compared to just 3.9mg per gram of milk.


What if I can’t drink milk? (Or someone I love?)

The first thing to figure out is why someone can’t drink milk. For example, not everyone who experiences discomfort from drinking milk is lactose-intolerant.

Researchers say that “lactose-intolerance” is sort of a catch-all term for milk not agreeing with someone. It could be something else. For example, those with IBS can’t have dairy, not because of the lactose, but because of the dairy fats (study).

Or it could be the fact that milk is mainly containing the A1 type of casein (more on that below.)

For those who are 100% sure it’s lactose-intolerance

They can still drink milk. One way is to get a lactose-free version or take a lactase pill that will break down the lactose, like Lactaid.

In lactose-free versions of milk, the digestive enzyme lactase is added to the milk beforehand to break the lactose down into sugars (this is what makes lactose-free milk taste sweeter.)

In this 2010 review on lactose intolerance, it found that people with lactose intolerance can still handle about 12–15g of lactose—about one cup of milk.

But we’d say if you love milk and can’t handle lactose, but you can have goats milk (A2-like), you may want to look into the A2 milk as a solution.


The A1 versus A2 debate—inflammation and milk intolerance

According to a non-profit dairy research foundation, before cows were domesticated, they only produced the A2 beta-casein protein. The A2 beta-casein protein is also what’s in human breastmilk.

A gene switch was flipped with the Holstein Friesian breed (the classic Western cow look with the black and white spots). This switch made many Holsteins start producing A1 beta-casein instead of the normal A2 beta-casein.

Now, you can still get Holstein breeds with a pure A2/A2 gene set, but it’s rarer, and when a milk batch comes from numerous Holstein cows, it will always contain some A1 milk. The Holstein Friesian breed is known as being the highest production breed of cattle, and so almost everyone is drinking A1 majority milk right now. Here’s what the foundation wrote:

“Milks from Guernsey, Jersey, Asian herds, human milk, and others (sheep, goat, donkeys, yaks, camel, buffalo, sheep, etc.) contain mostly A2 beta casein. Milks from Holstein Friesian contain mostly A1 beta casein. The Holstein breed (the most common dairy cow breed in Australia, Northern Europe, and the United States) carries A1 and A2 forms of beta caseins in approximately equal amounts. More than 50 percent of the Jersey breed carries the A2 beta casein variant, but with considerable variation among the herd, and more than 90 percent of the Guernsey breed carries the A2 beta casein variant.”

Cow Breed Beta Casein Genotype By Breed
Nearly 6000 animals were tested by the Canadian Dairy Network in 2016

Milk is about 80% casein, and beta-caseins make up about 1/3 of that. The debate is about what type of beta-casein is in the milk—making it mainly either A1 or A2 (though there are 12 types in total).

This gene switch changed one specific amino acid in the casein, and the idea goes that this changes the gut reaction to the protein.

It is proposed that A1 beta-casein causes the release of a compound called BCM-7. High blood levels of BCM-7 has all sorts of terrible things associated with it, like Type-1 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and even babies who died from SIDs. The BCM-7 fear prompted the European Food Safety Authority to create a review in 2009, where they found that there was not enough evidence and that it was conflicting. (review, critical review, PhD overview on A1/A2, study, study).

These horrible health effects and the relation to BCM-7 are still unproven—we all know that correlation doesn’t equal causation.

But a 2015 study found that there is an association with A1 dominant milk and inflammation.

In 2017, there was a systemic review of all the research on A1 and A2 milk on the gut. Researchers could only find three studies on humans. Here’s what the researchers wrote:

“…digestive discomfort is correlated with inflammatory markers in humans for A1 but not A2.”

“It is also evident in animals and at least in some human population groups that the A1–derivative peptide BCM-7 is proinflammatory.”

“There is now a need for further clinical studies of A1 effects in a broad range of population groups (ages, ethnicities, and different genetic haplotypes) and dietary conditions.”

In this article, researchers wrote that BCM-7 might even cause lactose-intolerance. Knowing this cleared up a question I had about why people with lactose intolerance could drink A2 milk event though it would still have lactose. The researchers write:

“The first is that the inflammatory characteristics of BCM-7 may affect lactase production/activity…”

“The second is that colonic inflammation affects the processing of malabsorbed lactose, possibly via changes in the gut microbiota that occur with gut inflammation.”

“The third is that the delayed gastrointestinal transit leads to increased opportunity for lactose fermentation (and the opportunity for fermentation of other dietary-derived oligosaccharides).”

“However, all need to be tested in clinical investigations.”

So we’ll see what the future holds for the A1 and A2 debate.

What’s interesting is how good milk is for our health based on numerous reviews of the research, despite this scare about A1 milk, which makes up almost all of the milk in the Western world.

Is A2 all hype and a passing fad? Or does A2 offer a real benefit but only to the few that suffer from lactose intolerance or other digestive issues?

Or will there be a revolution in the dairy industry over the next 10–15 years, with definitive science showing A2 as the superior choice for everyone, and herders then beginning to breed out A1 gene’s and towards A2?

Either way, it may be worth trying A2 milk, if you’ve got gut or inflammation issues. Or you like experimenting and want to try it out.

How do you buy A2 milk

A company called A2 Corporation has their headquartres in New Zealand. They have a patent to test herds and produce pure A2 milk. A royalty is paid from the milk producer to the A2 Corporation to do this. The idea is then you’d get pure A2 milk. (review)

For example, A2 milk can be found in Ontario, Canada by a farm called Sheldon Creek Dairy using the Holstein breed. They write:

“We have a voluntary milking system which means the cows can milk themselves when they want. We have installed an A2 Milk line so when a cow goes into milk, and is identified as an A2A2 cow, the milk is segregated and run through a separate milk line and flows into a separate A2 milk tank so that the milk never comes into contact with milk from a cow with A1 protein.”


Processing of milk

What about homogenized milk?

The homogenization of milk prevents the cream from separating from the liquids and creating the “cream layer.”

The milk is run through a machine with high-pressure, shrinking the size of the fat globules, so they stay mixed with the liquids. This helps with the consistency of the milk and allows the fortified vitamins to stay mixed. It would also create more consistency when mixing milk from very large herds, each cow with slightly different milk.

The process of homogenization has long been debated about if and how it affects the properties of the milk.

In this 2008 article on milk homogenization, researchers write:

“During homogenization, fat globules are broken down, and subsequently structures and surfaces different than the native state are formed. This process alters the milk fat globule unique macrostructure and the effects associated to their structure would be expected to be lost.”

Otherwise, researchers don’t really know what homogenization does to the quality of milk. We need more studies on it.

“The milk fat globule remains the least understood component of one of the world’s most valuable agricultural commodities, milk. Darwinian selective pressure drove the emergence of a remarkable lipid delivery system in which the particles and their surface properties are unique to any other biological lipid export system. Recent nutrition research is identifying multiple factors associated with the milk fat globule membrane and distinct health properties. Unfortunately, there are no available data regarding the outcome of the genetic, screening and breeding in bovine milk in the past 100 years on the milk lipid macrostructures.”

English? The fat in milk is supposed to be larger, thicker fat that will separate over time. We have no idea what breaking these fat globules down into such a small size so that they stay mixed, does to the milk.

We couldn’t find any studies outlining what sorts of changes homogenization does to the quality of the milk.

What about ultra-filtered or micro-filtered milk?

Filtration of milk goes back as far as the 1960s. The goal is to remove the particles with a filter (a membrane) that would cause the gelation or the formation of sediments in milk as it gets older. This process also slows the breakdown of the milk over time. That would allow the milk to have a longer expiry date before it goes bad and has a longer shelf life. (study, review)

Filtration can also remove bacteria, make skim milk, and even remove calcium and other nutrients to create standardization.

What else does microfiltration do to the quality of the milk? We couldn’t find any research on that. But it is another level of processing that the dairy producers are choosing to do, only to create a more standardized product and to increase shelf time. Perhaps we’re again playing with the natural structures of milk—just like with homogenization.

What about chocolate milk?

Chocolate milk has around twice as much sugar as regular milk, but it has all the other benefits of regular 1% skim milk. This study found that when chocolate milk was banned from schools, kids didn’t automatically select white milk (study). They drank less milk overall and may have compensated later for something sweet with more snacks and desserts. So chocolate milk could help kids get all the benefits of milk while still getting a great taste.

On the research front, because of all the sugar, a 2012 study finds chocolate milk is a great post-workout drink.

“Low-fat chocolate milk consists of a 4:1 carbohydrate:protein ratio (similar to many commercial recovery beverages) and provides fluids and sodium to aid in post-workout recovery.”

In another 2012 study, they took two groups of men who were runners. After a 45 minute run, one group would have chocolate milk, and the other would have a calorie matched carb drink. The study found that chocolate milk helped runners recover and be able to run more before exhaustion. This makes sense, as chocolate milk would provide many more performance benefits other than just more carbs.

And no, that myth about chocolate milk using bloodied or lower quality milk is wrong. Chocolate milk is bound by the same strict standards as in regular, white milk.


What milk is the best milk?

“Best,” as in, no restrictions? Then, all this said, we’d argue that the evidence seems to be pointing towards the best milk being:

Organic whole-fat non-homogenized non-filtered milk from an a2 breed of cow.

Organic would mean the milk would have more nutrients by being more pasture-raised. Whole fat would allow all the natural nutrients to be present. Non-homogenized would mean the fat globules would be the size as intended, and less processed. Non-filtered may mean the milk expires sooner, but we also wouldn’t unknowingly tamper with nature’s recipe. Until the A2 debate settles, I am okay with opting for A2 milk just in case. The Guernsey breed seems to be the safest bet for A2 milk at the moment.

I wouldn’t have thought it, but we’ve managed to find a way to outdo the worst customers at Starbucks. And all with something as simple as a glass of milk.

How researching milk has changed my buying habits

Before digging through the research, I was buying 2% conventional homogenized micro-filtered 2% milk for our family. Now I’m trying to find ways to shift things around in our budget to fit in organic milk—even if it means drinking a bit less milk. We can also now switch back to whole fat, guilt-free, to get all the benefits only found in the fats (we were drinking 1% and planning on changing to skim in the near future.) Plus the data seems to show that dairy saturated fats shouldn’t impact cardiovascular health. As for the A1 versus A2 debate, it’s piqued my interest, especially as someone with young kids, so I’ll be curious to see more research done in this area.

Conventional milk doesn’t give me any digestion issues, in fact I’ve always loved drinking milk. But I do have a bit of acne, even in my thirties, which I successfully treat with topical antioxidants (daily face wash with Vitamin C and B3, and occasionally use vitamin A cream.) I assumed that my acne was related to increased IGF-1 from building muscle. But perhaps it’s related to milk in general, or specifically the conventional milk. I’m thinking of trying a personal experiment with swapping in organic pasture-raised A2 milk for a month and see if I get less flare-ups.

At our local Whole Foods, we found Canadian whole-fat 4.8% unhomogenized Guernsey-cow milk (A2 milk). It has high levels of beta-carotene, it looks a bit yellow, and comes from a small farm called Eby Manor. We gave the milk bottle a good shake to try and mix the cream back into the milk. It tasted amazing, although, perhaps that’s just because 4.8% fat is quite a lot higher than the standardized 3.25% homogenized milk we get in Canada.

Summary

  • Milk is healthy.
    • Milk helps people stay leaner and more muscular.
    • Milk helps to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
    • Milk can help contribute to stronger bones.
    • Milk is associated with a lower chance of colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, gastric cancer, and breast cancer.
    • Milk probably doesn’t cause prostate cancer, and the risk that it does is incredibly low.
    • Milk might cause acne if you’re already prone to it. You can try drinking organic milk to get more acne-fighting compounds in the milk or try A2 milk to reduce inflammation. You can also try making improvements in your lifestyle (more sunshine) and diet elsewhere like including more antioxidants.
    • The trans-fats in dairy are different chemically from industrial trans fat. One of the main sources of trans fat in dairy, vaccenic acid, gets converted by our body’s into CLA—an anti-cancer, fat-burning, anti-inflammation compound.
  • Milk is nutritious. It is one of the best ways to rehydrate, refuel, and repair your body.
  • It is exceptionally good at helping to build muscle, being the protein with the highest quality score.
    • Milk contains around 400 fatty acids, which help make it anabolic.
    • Milk might help with performance and reducing post-exercise soreness.
    • Milk helps to spread out both fast and slow digestion of protein by having both whey and casein.
  • Milk is great for fat-loss and for maintaining a healthy body weight.
    • Milk helps to make people feel satisfied.
    • Milk helps to keep strength while burning fat.
  • Whole fat has a lot of advantages over skim and low-fat milk.
    • The main downside to whole fat is having lots of saturated fats and more calories.
    • However, saturated fat doesn’t seem to make cardiovascular disease worse.
    • Dairy saturated fats are different from other sources due to its unique compounds.
    • Whole fat milk, paradoxically, helps people to stay leaner even though it has more calories, possibly due to some of the fatty-acids like CLA.
  • Organic milk means the cows feed on pasture at least 1/3 of the year. Pasture-raised cattle have a different breakdown of ingredients in their milk, like more omega-3s and CLA, making it healthier.
  • Can’t drink milk? Lactose-intolerant people can try lactose-free milk or taking a lactase pill.
  • A2 milk might might be healthier than A1 milk—or it might not matter. There isn’t conclusive research yet, but A2 milk may cause less inflammation.
    • If you have lactose intolerance, but can have goat milk, you may want to try A2 milk.
  • Homogenization changes the structure of the fats in the milk, and there is no research on whether that is good or not.
  • Filtered milk helps to create standardized milk and to reduce spoiling. There is no research on whether that is good or not (aside from wasting less milk.)
  • Chocolate milk has the same rigorous standards as regular milk. The extra sugars can help kids drink more milk, and could help athlete’s with recovery while still being cheap and accessible.
  • The best milk might be: “Organic whole-fat non-homogenized non-filtered milk from an a2 breed of cow.”

So, now over to you. Do you drink milk? Has reviewing the research influenced how you see it? Let us know, and fill us in with what you thought.

2 thoughts on “Milk super-guide: building muscle, fat-loss, health”

  1. This article is HUGE! Even the acne section alone is longer than a standard article. Loved seeing all these highlights from all the research 🙂

    1. Thanks for checking it out! I started off with a goal of doing a small overview, but there’s a lot of research that would lead to another deeper point. Anyways, glad you liked it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tweet
Share
Pin