Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk
Posted On Oct 12, 2016
Perhaps you’ve grown up thinking your diet was incomplete without dairy. New research paints quite a different picture. Could dairy be less beneficial than you think?
Dairy has probably been part of your diet since you were a kid. Why wouldn’t it be, when government guidelines have long called for three servings of dairy daily? The American culture is absolutely steeped in dairy—milk in particular—and it’s difficult to separate science from the Norman Rockwell picture of milk products you probably keep stored in your head. “We’ve been brought up with the milk mythology from a young age,” says Joseph Keon, PhD, San Francisco-based nutritionist and author of Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk (New Society Publishers, 2010). That strong mythology, coupled with a series of successful national marketing campaigns, has caused many to associate milk with mothering and health.
It’s been 20 years since the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) launched the famous “Got Milk?” campaign. This memorable series of advertisements featured celebrities sporting “milk moustaches” and touted dairy as a rich source of potassium, calcium, and vitamin D—key nutrients for bone health. In February, MilkPEP retired that campaign for a new one, this time advertising milk’s high protein content. “Milk Life” is the updated tagline.
A large number of dietary and wellness experts are bothered by the way Americans are being sold on milk. “Consumers are being lured in by seductive messaging, selling milk as the perfect food,” says Holly Lucille, ND, RN, a naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles. “That is only true if you’re a calf.” Is the “milk does a body good”
message based on faulty science? “The recommendation to have three servings of dairy per day has been so widely promoted—including by these powerful marketing campaigns from the dairy industry—without real evidence of health benefits,” says Walter Willett, MD, MPH, DrPH, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There is a significant amount of conflict roiling within the USDA that could further taint the issue. The organization is not only charged with promoting American agricultural products, but responsible for setting dietary guidelines. Mitigating these two agendas is difficult at best. “There’s no way the USDA could ever tell Americans to consume less of a food they’re trying to market,” notes Keon, adding that many members of the dietary guidelines committee have a vested interest in the success of particular commodities, including that of dairy.
On the ingredients label of the milk carton in your refrigerator, you’ll surely find things like milk and vitamin D3. Some things you won’t find: words like dioxins, pesticides, and antibiotics. There’s no reason to, since these aren’t added directly to the milk you splash on your Raisin Bran, use in your baking, or drip into your coffee. They’re certainly in cows, though. If you and your family are eating dairy, you’re indirectly consuming these chemicals. “Dairy is one of the most concentrated sources of chemical pollutants in our diet,” Keon says.
Many dairy farms inject cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered hormone that increases cows’ milk output. This hormone is not cleared for use in the European Union, Canada, and numerous other countries. All cow milk increases the insulin growth factor called IGF-1 in people, but experts are concerned that rBGH may be causing cows’ IGF-1 levels to rise. (Studies have yet to offer conclusive proof.) The fear, according to Keon: Drinking milk yields greater exposure to IGF-1, which may elevate your risk for breast, prostate, and colon cancers. It’s also theorized that postmenopausal women with high IGF-1 levels have up to three times the risk of developing breast cancer than postmenopausal women with the lowest levels of IGF-1.
While you can buy rBGH-free milk, that doesn’t necessarily protect you. Every glass of milk—even if a cow was never given drugs—contains as many as 59 different hormones and growth factors. Among them: estrogen. Keon points out that cumulative exposure to estrogen can raise your breast cancer risk.
Injecting cows with rBGH can also lead to an increase in infections such as mastitis (inflammation of breast tissue). When this situation occurs, factory farms give cows antibiotics. A 2009 report from the FDA revealed that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States were reserved for livestock and poultry. The report noted that antibiotics are used to promote growth in animals. These antibiotics pass into the dairy you consume, increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance.
Back to Norman Rockwell: While you might picture cows happily grazing on grass—which they’re designed to eat—they’re typically fed a less-than-healthy, cheap diet of grain and corn for most of their lives. (The exception is grass-fed cattle.) There are reports of farmers feeding cattle sugary treats such as gummy worms, ice cream sprinkles, and marshmallows as cheap alternatives to corn. The cows then get sick, and must be treated with antibiotics. So goes the aforementioned vicious cycle once more.
Meanwhile, when you eat dairy, you’re consuming chemicals such as pesticides—which you can eliminate by eating organic dairy products—and dioxins (toxic pollutants usually released from combustion processes like waste incineration). More than 90 percent of your exposure comes from meat and dairy products, fish, and shellfish, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). All dairy—even organic dairy—contains dioxins. Keon says that milk is second only to red meat in its concentration of dioxins, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says can cause cancer and reproductive and developmental problems, harm the immune system, and interfere with hormones.
A large rationale for consuming dairy has been the prevention of osteoporosis and fractures. Government guidelines currently recommend 1,000 milligrams of calcium for adults aged 19 to 50. (Eight ounces of plain yogurt contains 415 mg, while the same amount of nonfat milk contains 299 mg.) Calcium is, without question, necessary for building and strengthening bones. But is dairy the most effective source of calcium? In short: No.
Recent studies show that high dairy consumption is not associated with lower risk of fractures. Take hip fractures: While Americans consume more cow’s milk and milk products per person than other countries, American women, ages 50 and older, have one of the highest rates of hip fractures in the world. “Dairy creates metabolic acidosis, an acid-like condition in which the body pulls calcium from the bones,” says T. Colin Campbell, PhD, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and author of The China Study (BenBella, 2006) and Whole (BenBella, 2013). “The higher the rates of dairy consumption, the higher the osteoporosis rate.” Ironically, Dr. Campbell grew up on a dairy farm and once aspired to be a dairy farmer.
Why does the industry still promote milk for bone benefits? “The dietary guidelines aren’t based on evidence that high milk consumption reduces fracture risk,” says Willett. “Rather, high milk consumption is needed to attain the high Recommended Dietary Allowances [RDA] for calcium. However, the high RDA is based on short-term studies that last less than two weeks.” Willett insists that these two-week studies are inadequate and likely to be misleading.
At the end of the day, Americans may not need as much calcium as the RDA suggests. The U.K. only recommends 700 mg of calcium per day for adults, and the World Health Organization recommends 500 mg of calcium per day. Willett believes both to be enough.
Many studies have demonstrated benefits to consuming dairy. For instance, dairy consumption, especially yogurt, may protect against age-related weight gain, lower risk of diabetes, and improve overall diet quality. That said, dairy has the potential to cause significant health issues, aside from being potentially ineffective in our diets.
Dairy consumption has been linked with increased cancer risk—including prostate, ovarian, uterine, and possibly other cancers. Women who consumed three to four servings of dairy on a daily basis have shown an increased risk for ovarian cancer, according to a recent review of diet and ovarian cancer research conducted over the course of the past decade for the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Men who consumed more than 2.5 daily servings of dairy products—skim, low-fat, and whole milk—had higher rates of prostate cancer than men who consumed less than half a serving a day, according to a study from the Journal of Nutrition. Whole milk has actually been associated with higher rates of fatal cases of prostate cancer.
Another possible dairy downfall? A link to heart issues, largely due to a protein in dairy called casein. “Not only does casein promote cancer, research shows that it encourages higher cholesterol levels and the beginning of heart disease,” says Campbell. Saturated fat, including that from dairy products, may contribute to the formation of plaque in arteries. Currently, the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of your daily calories.
Strong evidence also exists indicating that dairy can influence the development of type 1 diabetes, especially early in life. Drinking one glass of milk exposes the body to dozens of bovine proteins, which can stimulate an immune response in your body. As a result, your body mistakenly attacks insulin-producing cells. Eventually, your pancreas is unable to produce insulin, Keon says. This is when you need insulin injections.
Humans are the only species that drinks the milk of another animal. Many of us are not quipped to digest it properly. Milk allergies and intolerances are two serious consequences of dairy consumption. Milk allergy is the most common allergy in children, affecting up to 7 percent of children under the age of 2. (Most outgrow it by 3 or 5 years old, according to a study in the British Medical Journal.) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until after a child has turned 1 to introduce cow’s milk. At that time, parents are advised to use whole milk, advising that low-fat or nonfat milk shouldn’t be given to children before their second birthday. To hear it from Campbell: “It really should be more like when they turn 200. In other words, never.”
For others, dairy simply doesn’t agree with them. “Three-quarters of the world’s population is unable to process milk,” says Lucille, adding that dairy contributes to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). These individuals are lactose intolerant, meaning they’re unable to digest lactose, a sugar in milk and milk products. The condition usually begins in adulthood and increases in incidence as people age. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and nausea.
Of course, you can’t talk about dairy without mentioning environmental and ethical issues—two reasons that often prompt people to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. A single dairy cow produces the same amount of waste every day as 20 to 40 people, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. If not managed well, that waste can pollute the earth, infesting water supplies and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Reports also indicate that dairy cows routinely endure excessive physical suffering. These reasons add to Willett’s argument: Government recommendations of three servings of dairy a day are excessive. “It would mean doubling milk production in the U.S.,” he says. “That would have major adverse environmental impacts that should be carefully considered before suggesting such a major change.”
We know it’s hard to kick the dairy habit. This information probably isn’t easy to digest, as it suggests a radical shift in what you’ve always believed. Use what you’ve learned to make informed decisions about whether or not you want to consume dairy. Knowledge is power, after all.
Top Dairy Alternatives
Swapping out dairy is easier and tastier than you think:
Firm Silken Tofu
You Can Have a Healthy Diet Without Dairy
While you may have trouble training yourself away from cow cheese on your pizza or tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, many other foods can supply the nutrients you need. “You don’t have to swap out one thing for another because you’re in need or lacking it,” Keon says. “Dairy was never intended for people, so you’re just resetting the game back to where nature intended it to be.”
Start your new, more forgiving approach to chowing down by loading your diet with whole, plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, Campbell says. If you work in these more virtuous ingredients with little or no added oil, salt, or refined carbohydrates (such as sugar or white flour), even better. The cleaner you eat, the better shape you’re in.
Calcium is one of the biggest nutrients people worry about when cutting dairy. Lucky for you, many plant-based foods contain an abundance of calcium. A cup of raw kale contains 100 mg of calcium, half-cup of boiled turnip greens 99 mg, and cup of bok choy 74 mg. If you’re having trouble meeting your calcium needs, Willett suggests that you take a 500 or 600 mg calcium supplement.
What About Protein?
Considering the new milk campaign, one might deduce that a dairy-free diet will put you in the red when it comes to protein intake. Rest assure, the options are plentiful. You can always choose from non-dairy alternatives like soy and almond milks, soy yogurt, and even non-dairy cheese. Just read the labels for dairy alternatives carefully, as many are processed. Some have added sugars and minimal protein—especially almond and rice milks, says Tamara Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian in New York City. Other reliable sources of protein include lentils, black beans, quinoa, almonds, spinach, peanut butter, and broccoli.
CAN’T SAY NO?
If you absolutely must have dairy in your diet, keep in mind that the risk of adverse health outcomes tends to be strongest when people consume more than two servings of dairy per day, says Willett. The Healthy Eating Plate, a food guide created by the Harvard School of Public Health, recommends no more than two servings a day, suggesting a range of zero to two daily servings. At the end of the day, one dairy product that may be the least harmful of all is good, old-fashioned yogurt. “Its fermented nature may attenuate some of dairy’s harmful effects,” Campbell says.