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Drop Milk?

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Drop Milk?

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?

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Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Food, Health, Whole Soy Benefits

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119 comments

+ add your own
8:44AM PDT on May 24, 2011

Good info

6:18PM PDT on May 4, 2011

how many types of people do the "anti dairy" people study? if the nomadic Mongolian Horseman have a lot in their diet, how do they do? but it is hard to tell because the life style is not like "typical American"? I am just wondering? it seems when I see some debates, it might come to a "study of 400 people in __ has lead to results of__" I am told Lactose Intolerance runs high in some heritages, than others. or some story about how Vikings tried to share cheese with folks across the ocean that did not go well(or is that a lie?)

7:18PM PST on Nov 11, 2010

I am intolerant to milk and cheese...It causes nausea and huge inflammation in my intestines..
However Yoghurt (Plain Low Fat) which I make myself from powdered product seems good..must have for some calcium..

9:58AM PDT on Aug 23, 2010

no duh! milk comes from a cow, humans were never meant to drink it!

1:30PM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

I am not a vegan and never will be. I love love love milk! I also love most dairy products but have them in moderation. It's too bad all of you have so many issues with dairy. But for me....I will always agree with "Milk, it does a body good!"

1:26PM PDT on Aug 3, 2010

I am definitely not a vegan and never will be. I love love love milk and will never stop drinking it. I have never had a problem with any dairy products and not just my primary physician but other doctors have told me that I have incredibly strong bones. Sorry all of you have so many issues with dairy products.

10:45AM PDT on Jul 30, 2010

Great Article!! It confirms what I have always thought about dairy consumption, these "foods" are Not necessary for health and proper growth in humans. Dairy products, whether they are high fat, fat free, organic, raw milk from grass- fed cows or processed "supermarket milk" have all been associated with very serious health conditions in humans, including cardiovascular disease ( this nation's Number One Killer!!) diabetes,obesity , Serious digestive (gastro-intestenal) problems, allergies, and certain cancers.If you are lactose-intolerant, consider yourself lucky, your body is rebelling against dairy because it does Not need it!! I have had trouble with milk and dairy my whole life, but as a kid I was forced to drink it by my mom even though it gave me terrible stomach cramps! When I was about 11 or 12 years old I could no longer tolerate dairy at all, it would make me very sick and I wont even touch it today. The dairy industry continues to shove it's lies and misinformation down everybody's throats, it dominates government food programs such as WIC and the National School Lunch program, without considering the fact that many people in these programs don't want or cannot tolerate dairy, it is all about money and control!!

10:03AM PDT on Jul 16, 2010

I'm lactose intolerant and can't handle whole cow's milk and ice cream. I love cheese and yogurt (tough to give that up). Yet I do vary my cheese varieties and eat goat cheese and manchego cheese (from sheep's milk). There are several milk alternatives to choose nowadays. I drink soy milk and have recently started drinking hemp milk. I don't think I will ever be a full-fledged vegetarian or even vegan, but I do limit red meat consumption and eat more vegetarian meals during the week (especially for my daughter).

4:11PM PDT on Jun 4, 2010

I have made a pledge to myself, after many months of being on the fence, to become a full vegan. I haven't eaten any type of meat for years but still ate yogurt and items that contained dairy. No longer. After the abuse I saw on the video of the cows back east this week I will no longer be a part of it.

No we don't need or have to drink milk!!!!!

4:57PM PST on Feb 18, 2010

Much of commercial milk also contains other ingredients added in the homogenization process. Pure cow's milk and cream is beneficial to many people, including many who are allergic to homogenized milk. Same goes for goat's milk.

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