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Milk is sold as a healthy food and we're all familiar with the 'Got Milk?' campaign. But is it really good for you, and when should you drink it to get the best effects? So, Should You GO MAD and drink "Gallon Of Milk A Day"?

GOMAD is an acronym beloved of weightlifting types who are trying to get heavier.  It stands for a Gallon Of Milk A Day, and refers to the common prescription for lean weight gain: squats and milk.  Well, no-one can argue with squats.  But what about milk?

Milk isn’t necessarily used to gain weight, either.  Some advisors encourage people who are trying to lose weight to use milk to make themselves feel full, and there’s plenty of evidence that milk is a better sports drink than even the very best isotonic, scientific sports supplement drinks on the market.  That’s down to its almost-ideal mixture of electrolytes and to its sugar content as well as the fat and protein present in milk.

So far, milk sounds like the ideal sports supplement 

And for some people it is.  Whether or not milk can be good for you depends on how you react to two of its major ingredients, a protein called casein and a sugar called lactose.

Casein is a protein that makes up about 80% of cow’s milk and about 45% of human milk, so it’s obvious that we are designed to consume it.  And one of the reasons its so popular is that it’s a cheap supplement, a good way to get some extra protein into your diet and one that has the quality of being slow-release.  Casein forms a clot in the stomach and is digested more slowly than some other proteins, making it a bedtime favourite for bodybuilders.

Casein is also responsible for a small number of clinically diagnosed allergies, though a far greater number of people claim non-allergy sensitivity to casein.  That’s partly because of the strong structural similarities between casein and gluten, the protein in grains that takes the blame for so much bowel irritation.  Gluten takes its name from the Latin for glue, and it acts like a glue in the bowel, adhering to the villi, the hair-like whiskers lining the inside of the gut and responsible for digestive transit.

A Sticky Problem

Casein, as the historically or practically minded will have noted, is also a glue.  It forms a clot in the stomach by the same mechanism that casein glues are thickened by contact with an acid, and it’s blamed for many of the same digestive disorders as gluten, causing many people to avoid it.  On a side note, diets free of gluten and casein have been used to control the symptoms of autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though there’s no compelling evidence for their effectiveness (there is a lot of anecdotal evidence though).

Lactose Intolerance

Additionally there’s the issue of lactose, which is a little more complex.  Lactose is the sugar in milk, and while it’s also found in human milk, the gene that codes for the enzyme that allows us to digest lactose safely usually turns off between two and four years old.  While many Europeans can digest cows’ milk safely due to ‘lactase persistence,’ in which the gene never turns off, many Africans and African-Americans and nearly all Chinese are lactose-intolerant.  This isn’t an allergy, but an inability to metabolise a certain type of sugar.  As a result the sugar in any milk non-lactase-persistent people eat is metabolised by gut bacteria instead and causes digestive issues.

If you don’t have any of the digestive issues that can accompany milk then you should be OK to GO MAD, right?

Well, one problem with drinking a huge amount of milk is the sugar content.  Even if you deal with lactose just fine, milk is about 40% sugar by calorie count – the rest of its calories come from fats and protein.  But that’s a pretty high concentration of sugars, and consuming milk constantly throughout the day can lead to problems.

 Whether you’re trying to gain or lose weight, you’ll sometimes be advised to split up your day’s calories into several smaller meals.  The reasoning is the same whether you’re trying to rid yourself of excess fat or gain some muscle: your blood sugar is kept more stable when you eat more frequently.  And there is some truth to this.  However, there’s a danger that permanently elevated blood sugar can reduce insulin sensitivity, which means your body gets worse at dealing with blood sugar changes and eventually you could be paving the way for diabetes. 

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Goulding, A., et al, ‘Children who avoid drinking cow's milk are at increased risk for prepubertal bone fractures,’ Journal of the American Dietetics Association, 104(2), pp. 250-3, February 2004
  • Holmstrup, Michael E., et al, ‘The effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over the course of a day,’ The European e-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism, 5(6), ee277-280, December 2010
  • Tipton, KD, et al, ‘Ingestion of casein and whey proteins result in muscle anabolism after resistance exercise,’ Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36(12), pp. 2073-81, December 2004
  • Photo courtesy of Sport Nottinghamshire by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/sportnottinghamshire/8877903287/
  • Photo courtesy of 8 Kome by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/kome8/1679974806/

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