For decades, the dairy industry has pushed and advertised milk consumption as the primary way to ensure a healthy calcium intake, claiming that children will only develop strong  bones if they drink the recommended amount of milk. However, in recent years, studies have shown that dairy is not as essential to a healthy diet as previously believed. Milk consumption has been revealed to have no impact on the number of fractures or broken bones. Calcium is certainly an important nutrient, but one need not receive it from milk or other dairy products. Green vegetables like kale and broccoli contain calcium, among many other foods, so there’s really no health-related need to consume dairy at all. This new knowledge brings dairy’s position on the food pyramid into question and points to the efficacy of the dairy industry in creating fear-based consumption of its products. Many studies have shown that dairy can have adverse consequences for your health, including increased risk of heart disease and even cancer. 

In addition to the health concerns surrounding dairy products, the environmental impact of the dairy industry can no longer be overlooked. Dairy farms have become larger and larger to meet demand and guarantee profits as our population grows. As these farms have grown, so have the harmful byproducts of raising and feeding millions of cows each year. As a result, the amount of water used by dairy farms is astronomical, and mishandled cow waste causes air pollution that’s harmful to humans. 

Let’s take a closer look at a few different health consequences and environmental hazards that spawn from today’s dairy industry:

High Levels of Saturated Fat 

Dairy products, especially whole fat milk and cheese, are loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol. A diet rich in saturated fats can significantly increase the chance of developing heart conditions or strokes. When considering that the amount of cholesterol in one milk serving is about 24 mg, it becomes clear that the likelihood of developing a heart condition is extremely high when you’re basically drinking or eating artery-clogging fat. A 2012 study found that the average American consumes approximately 276 pounds of dairy each year, including a fluid milk intake of about 199 pounds. Given the fact that around 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year, it is critical to re-examine the consequences of the high cholesterol, dairy-heavy diet that has become ubiquitous in the U.S.

Lactose Intolerance

There’s a reason why adults become lactose intolerant and it’s quite simple: we do not require dairy. As babies and young children, our bodies produce enzymes that can break down lactose (the sugar molecule in milk) because we are being nursedMany adults stop producing these enzymes as they grow older and are nonetheless able to maintain healthy calcium-intake;this is clear evidence that we don’t need dairy products to be healthy and in fact may suffer recurring gastric discomfort because of itLactose intolerance can cause gas, nausea, stomach pains, and diarrhea. The conditionis surely plaguing many who are immersed in a dairy-obsessed culture and ignorant to the cause of their ailments, or who fear decreased wellbeing without consuming dairy when in fact the reality could be just the opposite. 

Cancer Risk

The consumption of dairy also has implications for cancers. In a 2013 study by Kaiser Permanente, researchers found that women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who ate full-fat dairy products after they were diagnosed had a higher mortality rate than women who ate low-fat dairy products after diagnosis. Another study suggested that eating a high amount of cheese, cheddar and cream cheese in particular, could increase the risk of breast cancer by 53%. Dairy products have also been linked to the development of ovarian cancer and prostate cancer.

Environmental Harm

We all know that water is the most precious natural resource that we have, and we also know that the global well is drying. Animal agriculture is responsible for a quarter of the total global water footprint, and 19% of that total comes from the dairy industry. 

Dairy farms need water to clean the floors, and implement an automatic flushing system to clean manure. The amount of water used by these flushing systems can be up to 104,850 gallons per day for an average size dairy farm facility. 

Because dairy cattle produce a lot of milk, they need to stay hydrated. A dairy cow can drink around 23 gallons of water in a day, a number that can quickly become astronomical if you have a factory farm with over 700 cows. 

The large production of milk also means that cows eat a lot of food to refuel. A study by the University of California found that 4,781 gallons of water are used to produce the feed that one cow eats in a day. 

In addition to the environmental harm the dairy industry inflicts upon our already strained watershed, the potential for pollution and disease transfer to humans also exists. Manure run-off from farms is already very common, and regularly seeps into nearby aquifers, increasing nitrogen levels to unsafe concentrations. The liquid manure, which contains pathogens like E. coli and traces of growth-hormone pharmaceuticals, contaminates groundwater in places like Lincoln, Wisconsin, where around 50% of the town’s private wells contain water that exceeds bacteria and nitrate safety standards. Furthermore, proposals to increase herd sizes dramatically elevates the risk of further contamination and larger, more wide-spread manure spills. This is a dangerous line many dairy-producing states, like Wisconsin, New York, and Washington, are currently toeing. 

Animal Cruelty

If the health issues relating to milk consumption are not enough to make you rethink your dairy consumption, take a moment to consider animal cruelty. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated right after their first birthday, or at around 15 months old. Once the calf is born, mother cows have no opportunity to nurture their young. Instead, they are separated within 48 hours of birth. This separation is emotionally devastating for cows and creates severe anxiety; according to a PETA investigation, after the babies are taken away, the mother cows’ calls of mourning are heard for days on end.

Once the calf is separated, the fate of the newborn depends on its gender. If the calf is male, it will be shot to feed hunting hounds, or sold as cheap meat or veal. If it’s female, it will be condemned to the same life as its mother, thus continuing the torturous cycle. 

Cows only produce milk for about 10 months after giving birth. Once the lactation period is over, the cow is inseminated once more and the whole process repeats itself. On average, a cow’s lifespan is between 20 and 25 years, but the reality is much more grim for a dairy cow. Due to the constant emotional stress and the physical demands of producing excessive amounts of milk, the average lifespan of a dairy cow is only 5-6 years.  

Unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive list of all the horrors of the dairy industry, but it should make you rethink your dairy consumption. Overworking the dairy cows to produce large quantities of milk causes several health conditions, including malnutrition, swollen leg joints, and infections. Dairy cattle are often kept in overcrowded spaces, with no room to walk around, and with no hint of grass to graze upon. They are shot with several antibiotics, hormones, and often suffer from mastitis,; a common inflammation of the mammary glands.

A Final Assessment 

There is no longer any reason to drink cow milk or consume dairy products. There is no added benefit dairy contributes to daily nutrition, and contrary to what the dairy industry has advertised for years, research now suggests dairy consumption can in fact negatively impact your health. All the nutrients that we need to maintain a healthy, balanced diet can be found in plant foods. In fact, plant-based milks like almond milk, oat milk, and flaxseed milk are more calcium-rich than dairy milk. And if health isn’t the main motivator behind giving up dairy, then environmental harm and animal cruelty practices should be! You can opt out of supporting the harmful effects of herd expansion and the brutality these cows must endure at the hands of the dairy industry by picking up plant-based alternatives at the grocery store. So the next time you’re in the freezer section, eyeing pints of ice cream, try reaching for an almond or coconut-based dessert instead. It will still be a delicious treat, and you can rest easy knowing you aren’t sacrificing your health, the environment, or the well-being of innocent animals by indulging.  

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