By Sally Lehrman, Natural Solutions
The dairy industry portrays milk as an essential part of a good diet and our best bet for staving off osteoporosis. Should you buy it?
Denise Jardine had loved dairy products since she was a kid. You could even say she shaped her day around them. She’d start out with cream in her coffee and low-fat milk on her cereal. Lunch might include cheese or yogurt, and instead of sipping soda, she quaffed milk. Often she’d finish off the evening with a little ice cream.
Not an unfamiliar scenario to many Americans, no doubt. Every year, we down more dairy products: Sales are at their highest since 1987, reaching an annual total of 594 pounds per person. And the chorus of voices urging us to eat still more just got louder: The federal government’s new food pyramid for 2005 pumps up recommended dairy intake to three cups of milk per day, compared with two in the earlier version.
But evidence is accumulating that milk and milk products may not be the wholesome, ideal foods we think they are. A growing number of activists, nutritionists, and heart and bone specialists say the health benefits of dairy have been vastly oversold. The science simply isn’t there, says Amy Joy Lanou, the director of nutrition for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Milk has a lot of calcium and other nutrients, but there is a large body of evidence that it may not be the best nutritional package for some people–maybe a lot of people.”
What’s more, dairy may actually be causing health problems in many people. Digestive problems plague the up to 50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant. And whole milk and cheese, of course, are notorious for being loaded with saturated fat, which not only adds to waistlines but also threatens our hearts. But that’s not all: Recent research has shown that some milk contains trace amounts of rocket fuel–hardly a wholesome substance. And though the evidence isn’t conclusive, some studies suggest that drinking lots of milk may raise the risk of ovarian and prostate cancers.
With so many clear risks and unanswered questions, why do doctors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture keep pressing us to drink up? Lanou points to a basic conflict of interest: The USDA is charged with promoting agriculture and encouraging better nutrition. Too often the former takes priority over the latter.
For instance, about 80,000 farmers across the country contribute a portion of their profits to a mandatory program, overseen by the USDA, that funds research, promotion, and trade. Its marketing campaigns have helped pump up individual dairy consumption by 11 percent over the past 20 years–so much so, in fact, that a 20 billion-pound milk surplus was wiped out even as production increased.
Other federal programs, such as the National School Lunch program and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, boost milk consumption, too. In fact, school districts actually lose their federal reimbursement for meals if they don’t include milk in every menu. WIC policies highlight milk and cheese among the foods participants receive. Even chocolate milk qualifies, while yogurt, soy, and rice milk do not.
Lanou and other experts believe this dairy industry bias is reflected in the new food guide pyramid. “I went to all the dietary guideline meetings and heard the discussion,” Lanou says. “The conflict of interest is so much a part of the process, it’s deeply internalized.”
No one sums up these concerns as succinctly as Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard Department of Nutrition, who believes that the dairy industry–not public health–benefits most from the guidelines. “We should have strong evidence of safety before promoting radical dietary changes,” Willett wrote in comments to the press about the USDA’s recommended three glasses of milk a day. “Dairy is certainly not an essential component of a healthy diet as the guidelines would have us believe.”
Here’s the latest on the claims about dairy that the industry would like you to swallow whole. Better bodies? In an ad that featured an hourglass female figure with a measuring tape draped around her waist, the National Dairy Council advised, “Burn more fat and lose more weight.” As evidence, the council–which is the marketing arm for the dairy industry–pointed to a small but well-designed study in the journal Obesity Research. When University of Tennessee researchers cut back food intake among 32 obese people, those who ate lots of dairy lost about ten more pounds than everyone else. Not only that, most of the fat they lost was belly fat, the riskiest type.
To say that the dairy industry ran with this finding is an understatement. It now claims that eating three to four daily servings of milk, cheese, and yogurt makes a better weight loss strategy than just cutting calories.
No such luck, says Jean Harvey-Berino, the chair of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont. While eating cheese and yogurt would seem like a pretty painless way to lose weight, and some other studies do show a correlation between dairy intake and weight loss, when Harvey-Berino attempted to replicate the Tennessee study last year in a slightly larger number of people, she got very different results: After 24 weeks on a structured program of diet and exercise, both the high-dairy and the low-dairy participants lost the same amount of weight. “I don’t think dairy provides any more benefit than following a standard calorie-restricted diet and exercising,” she says.
In fact, it adds a significant amount of bad fat to our diet. In a survey of nearly 18,000 people in the mid-1990s, California Polytechnic State University researchers found that dairy foods made up about one-fifth of total dietary fat and cholesterol, and one-third of the saturated fat that people eat. These fats contribute to both heart disease and diabetes, along with insulin resistance, a prediabetic condition that brings problems of its own.
Next: Bone health?