Those arguments against drinking milk just don’t make sense

Man is not the only animal to drink other species’ milk. It is however the only one to discuss whether this is healthy or appropriate.

Boi Dulai

Before I start – I am not trying to argue in this post whether or not milk is good for you. My personal view is that it is good for you unless you are lactose intolerant, but I respect that other people have other views on this topic, and I am not trying to convince them otherwise.
What I want to achieve in this post though is to address three arguments that are commonly brought forward by the opponents of milk, and that, I will argue here, are – even though (partially) true – not relevant in this context. Those arguments are the following

  • Humans have only herded for x-thousands of years which, in evolutionary terms, is not enough time to adapt
  • We are the only species that drinks other animals’ milk
  • We are the only species that drinks milk after childhood

Humans have only herded for x-thousands of years

Adapting to drink milk is not like growing a third leg. All children can tolerate milk and afaik most of them can even tolerate the milk of other species. Not losing a certain capability that every child has in adulthood seems to me to be a rather small step.

Add to this to the fact that in a herding community with limited supply of food the ability to be able to efficiently digest milk is a big advantage: When times are tough those that can rely on milk will prosper, grow big, become kings, and have 10 wives and 100 children – you get the picture.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding: descendants of herders have adapted to drinking milk, ie they remain lactose tolerant throughout their lives.

We are the only species that drinks other animals’ milk

That’s true (well, it isn’t quite, more of this below) but we are also the only species that eats with knife and fork, and who get their water from the tap rather than from the watering hole amongst other things. My non-flippant underlying point is that this argument confuses skill with metabolic ability. Of course no other species drinks other animals’ milk – how would a wolf ever get to the milk of a cow for example? And given that they can’t get it in the first place, the fact that they don’t drink it does not allow any conclusion as to whether they are metabolically able to digest it or not.

In fact there are species that – when given access to it – love other species milk. Just check any children’s book with cats (I got lots of those at home…): most of them will feature a saucer of milk, as milk is what cats eat – every child knows that :-).

We are the only species that drinks milk after childhood

This is again probably true (apart from the aforementioned cats of course). But there are good reasons for it other than the metabolic ability and health of the consumer of the milk.

As every mother will tell you, producing milk is incredibly hard on the body, so there is a trade-off between the hardship for the mother (and the risk that due to this hardship she will be less able to care for the child) and the nutritional benefit for the child. Also, it is very inefficient from a caloric point of view, so with limited food resources available it makes sense to not waste them by feeding the children via the mother. Finally, children are designed to outlive their parents so at one point they will obviously have to live without their mothers milk in any case.

Putting all of this together this means that there is some optimal point (from a systemic point of view, not necessarily from a metabolic point of view of the individual) where the child should go off milk, and at this point the body might lose the capability to digest milk as it is no longer needed.

This changes however with the ascent of herding: it does not really matter if it is hard on the cows – you simply replace them. Therefore herders can have access to milk throughout their lives, and many of them have indeed adapted to do so.

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14 thoughts on “Those arguments against drinking milk just don’t make sense

  1. Pingback: So, wait.. why CAN some people handle dairy? | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page 3

  2. Word. I don’t get this whole “we have not evolved to X” kind of reasoning. I very much enjoy modern sanitation, clothing, dentistry (enjoy might be the wrong word here), reading, the internet. Likewise I enjoy my cheese and I am certainly not going to stop.

  3. Those sound like arguments from “reenactors” and not people who are basing their decisions on science.

  4. What’s the milk like over there, Thor? I’m reading something now that talks about traditional diets, and part of her argument is that we’re not drinking milk, we’re drinking a pasteurized, homogenized beverage that isn’t even molecularly similar to real milk. I could obtain raw goat’s milk illegally around here if I wanted to, thinking about trying it.

    • The milk is generally pasteurised, but lightly so if this makes sense (ie it still needs to be cooled, and has a shelf life of a number of days). Anything else is not manageable with modern distribution systems, esp in the cities (UPDATE: it seems it is possible in some countries …. not in London though afaik). The milk is not homogenised.

      Cheese is generally raw milk cheese I believe. Not sure about other milk products. Note to self: gotta find out 🙂
      UPDATE: most cheese-cheeses are indeed, at least the one’s I eat. I also consume a fair amount of cottage cheese and yogurt, those are pasteurised

  5. Thank you! I’ve found that Paleo/Primal enthusiasts can be too quick to fall back on “Cavemen didn’t eat it, so neither should we.” It’s refreshing to read someone who recognizes the evolutionary argument for what it is: a guideline, not a rule. Although I do agree, raw milk is certainly the way to go if it’s legal in your state, or grass-fed at the very least. Great post.

  6. Interesting points. I think perhaps the missing point from your first argument though revolves not around ability to tolerate lactose but around our ability to digest different proteins. The proteins in each type of milk are quite different from each other, which is why my kids who are both allergic to cow’s milk are able to drink goat’s milk, which we buy raw from a local farmer. I think there’s a pretty reasonable body of evidence that many people have serious problems with cow’s milk, ranging from a classic allergy (which my daughter displays) to behavioral/sensory influences (my son’s diagnosed Sensory Integration Dysfunction symptoms reduced by about 80% when he stopped drinking cow’s milk). Additionally, kids with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and ADD may experience dramatic lessening of symptoms from giving up cow’s milk.

    So bottom line for me is that while a portion of the population may have adapted reasonably well to drinking milk, it may not provide optimal health (especially when you consider the acidity of milk products, esp. cheese and the net effect on the body), and that many people are better off drinking sheep’s or goat’s milk than cow’s milk, which is perhaps the worst kind for the human body. I read someplace that horse’s milk is the closest to human milk, but you can imagine the difficulties in putting a commercial horse milking operation into practice, LOL.

    In our family, we aim for not drinking a whole lot of milk products, but when we do they’re raw and local, and in our case come from goats.

  7. Thanks Robin, for this long comment. And as I said above – I believe there are good arguments on both side, and ultimately drinking or not drinking milk (or consuming other dairy products) is a very personal choice. I have actually not been aware of a couple of points you raised and will look into those for myself.

    The key point I wanted to make with this article though I believe we agree – the three arguments above (which pop out over and over in the milk discussion) are simply not valid, so one should move on to the real points, like those you raised…

  8. Yes, that’s absolutely true. They are definitely excellent points, and it is interesting that milk tends to be sort of a dividing line, between Primal and Paleo at least.

  9. In terms of your argument that humans aren’t the only ones who drink the milk of other animals, cats wouldn’t naturally drink milk from a cow too. Its only cause humans have been domesticating and feeding them milk. Its not like they’re naturally go up to a cow and start drinking its milk.

  10. Have you ever read the James Herriott story about the kitten who was adopted by a mother pig? that cat drank straight from the tap with no ‘human intervention’.

  11. I won’t drink milk or eat dairy products is because I don’t like to take it from another animal unneccessarily. As the author says, it is quite hard on the body, and if the animal stops giving, simply replace. How arrogant and selfish of humans to put themselves above the life of another creature like some sort of elite lifeform. Secondly the process of extracting the milk from artificial insemination, through to removing the calf from mother (at least half the time to become beef cattle) is unnatural and cruel.

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