Drinking Milk Associated With a Higher Death Rate: Study

But cheese and yogurt appear to be healthful
By Gabe Mirkin
Gabe Mirkin
Gabe Mirkin
April 14, 2017 Updated: April 14, 2017

Drinking milk and restricting fruits and vegetables are both associated with increased risk for premature death, according to a Swedish study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The study of more than 106,000 men and women found the following:

More milk, fewer vegetables decreased life expectancy. Women who drank three or more glasses of milk and ate fewer than two fruits or vegetables per day were three times more likely to die than those who drank fewer than two glasses of milk and ate at least five fruits and vegetables per day.

More milk, equal vegetables decreased life expectancy. Women who drank three glasses of milk and ate at least five fruits and vegetables per day still had a 60 percent higher risk of early death compared to women who consumed the same amount of fruits and vegetables but drank little or no milk.

Decreased risk for men compared to women. Men who drank three or more glasses of milk per day were 30 percent more likely to die than men who did not drink milk.

Previous studies have shown increased association between milk and premature death and increased bone fracture risk, but this is the first study to show that drinking milk harms women more than men. The authors speculate that women have more estrogen, which changes the way their bodies react to the milk sugar galactose.

Milk May Increase Risk

Milk is a high-sugar drink. We know that galactose on its own can cause the same oxidative damage and chronic inflammation that is associated with diabetes, heart attacks, certain cancers, and bone loss.

The high content of the sugar galactose in milk, and not cholesterol or saturated fats, may be harmful to your health.

The people who drank milk had increased urine levels of 8-iso-PGF2a (a biomarker of oxidative stress) and serum interleukin 6 (a major inflammatory biomarker). Chronic exposure of mice, rats, and fruit flies to galactose caused their cells to develop signs associated with aging: shorter telomeres and damaged DNA.

Cheese and Yogurt

(Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock)
(Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock)

A 2015 study from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that fermented dairy products encourage the growth of healthful intestinal bacteria that may help prevent heart attacks.

Fermentation, used to create yogurt or cheese from milk, breaks down the galactose, which explains why fermented dairy products may help to prevent heart attacks. People who ate a lot of cheese had very high levels of butyrate (a fatty acid) in their stool and urine, and much lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol. That means the fermented dairy products are being converted to butyrate by bacteria in the intestines. This prevents food from forming LDL cholesterol, which is associated with increased heart attack risk.

Another study of 27,000 people, ages 45 to 74, showed that eating cheese and yogurt lowered risk of Type 2 diabetes by 25 percent.

The ‘French Paradox’

The “French paradox” is the observation that France has low rates of heart disease despite a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat. For more than 50 years, the medical community has speculated that this might be explained by the fact that they drink a lot of wine. But several recent studies have questioned whether alcohol offers any protection from heart attacks. Taking more than two drinks a day and binge drinking have both been shown to increase the risk of heart attacks and heart failure.

I think that instead of wine, cheese may be part of the explanation; the traditional French diet includes plenty of cheese and very little milk.

All Sugared Drinks Can Harm

Sugared drinks are associated with increased risk for obesity, diabetes, inflammatory-related pain, heart attacks, certain cancers, and premature death. Eating or drinking sugar can cause a spike in blood sugar, which can damage all cells in the body. Sugar in drinks causes a much higher rise in blood sugar levels than sugar in food.

When food reaches your stomach, the pyloric sphincter muscle at the end of the stomach closes and only a liquid soup is allowed to pass into your intestines. Beverages pass very quickly and then enter the bloodstream, while solid foods stay in the stomach for a long time.

An 8-ounce glass of whole milk contains more than three teaspoons of sugar and almost as many calories as an 8-ounce glass of Coke. Chocolate milk and other milk-based beverages have even more sugar added, and often exceed the recommendations for added sugar for children (no more than six teaspoons per day).

Yogurt and other fermented dairy products do not need to be classified as sugared drinks because the fermentation process breaks down galactose, the main sugar in milk. However, check the labels to make sure that other sugars have not been added.


Recent research shows that the high content of the sugar galactose in milk, and not cholesterol or saturated fats, may be harmful to your health. We do not know for sure whether drinking milk causes diabetes or heart attacks, or whether cheese and yogurt help to prevent them. However, recent studies suggest that you may want to limit the amount of milk you drink, and that cheese and yogurt may be healthful.

This article was originally published on DrMirkin.com. Subscribe to his free weekly Fitness & Health newsletter.

Gabe Mirkin