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|Dairy fact and fiction|
Milk used to be considered a "perfect
food"--indeed it is very nutritious. In recent years, however,
"cow's milk is for calves" has become a rallying cry for several
groups, which claim that milk is nothing less than a "deadly
poison." If you believe these groups, milk is behind nearly all our
major diseases. Here are some of the claims being made about milk
and dairy products--and responses from Berkeley Wellness Health
Claim: Dairy products increase the risk of heart
Facts: If you consume lots of whole milk and
cheese, you're likely to raise your blood cholesterol levels. That's
true, however, of any foods rich in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Milk's opponents talk as if all milk is still whole milk. But more
and more dairy products these days are nonfat or low-fat, and thus
do not raise cholesterol levels significantly. In fact, there's some
evidence that certain substances in milk may help lower cholesterol
somewhat. (However, with whole milk, this effect is probably
overwhelmed by the cholesterol-boosting effect of the fat.) And
since milk is rich in calcium and magnesium, it can help reduce the
risk of hypertension.
Milk opponents often quote a paper in
Alternative Medicine Review that indicted milk, even nonfat milk, as
a cause of heart disease. But that article was simplistic and
misleading. It found an association between milk consumption and
heart disease in population studies from 32 countries, but the data
did not allow the researcher to take into consideration many of the
other factors that can affect the risk of heart disease. Nor do the
data specify what kind of milk (full-fat vs. lower-fat) was consumed
in the various countries.
Claim: Dairy products increase
the risk of ovarian cancer.
Facts: A few studies have
suggested that there's a link between lactose (milk sugar) and/or
galactose (a related sugar) and ovarian cancer, while others have
found no connection. However, a well-done study in the American
Journal of Epidemiology refuted this claim. It found that women with
ovarian cancer had consumed less, not more, of these milk sugars
than healthy women.
Claim: Dairy products boost the risk
of cancer in general.
Facts: Milk is not the problem, but
rather total fat intake. For instance, a high fat intake may
increase the risk of lung and colon cancer. But at the same time
some studies have found that low-fat milk reduces the risk of lung
cancer. In fact, animal studies have shown that compounds in milk
may suppress cancer development. In addition, there's some evidence
that dairy products reduce the risk of colon cancer. Both calcium
and vitamin D (added to milk) may help protect colon
Claim: Dairy products increase the risk of juvenile
Facts: This was the most frightening claim made a
few years ago by a group of anti-milk physicians, including the late
Dr. Benjamin Spock. They actually were against consuming all animal
products. It's true that a 1992 Finnish study suggested that a
protein in cow's milk might trigger an abnormal response in children
genetically predisposed to developing insulin-dependent diabetes.
But other studies have not found a connection between milk and
childhood diabetes, except that breast-fed children seem to have a
lower risk of the disease. No reputable authorities have proposed
that children avoid milk and dairy products.
boosts mucus production in the throat.
Facts: The scientific
evidence says no. This myth may persist because of whole milk's
thick consistency and because it may coat the mouth briefly. In one
Australian study, subjects (many of them believers in the milk-mucus
link) were given either chocolate-flavored cow's milk or an
indistinguishable soy milk. About one-third of them reported that
the cow's milk coated their tongue and throat, made them swallow a
lot, and/or made their saliva feel thicker. But a similar proportion
of those who drank the soy milk reported these same sensations, so
the dairy product wasn't to blame. If you don't like the way whole
milk coats your tongue, or if it feels as if it makes saliva hard to
swallow, this is yet another reason to switch to low-fat or nonfat
Claim: Dairy products actually increase the risk
Facts: This notion is based in large
part on the fact that in certain countries, such as China, where
dairy products are rarely consumed and calcium comes primarily from
green vegetables, the rate of osteoporosis (weakened bones) is low.
In fact, the studies present contradictory findings: many show that
high calcium intake (mostly from dairy products, and particularly in
early adulthood) does lead to stronger bones, but others find that
dairy or calcium intake does not lower the risk of hip fractures.
One possible problem is that dairy products are rich in protein, and
a high protein intake slightly increases calcium excretion in urine,
which might reduce bone density. The high levels of calcium in dairy
products should, however, more than offset any effect their protein
may have on your bones. Genetics also plays a big role. Most experts
continue to recommend dairy products (along with exercise and, if
necessary, calcium supplements) as the best way to reduce the risk
Claim: People who have problems digesting
lactose can eat or drink no dairy products.
people who believe they can't digest any lactose (milk sugar)
without bloating and discomfort are not really lactose-intolerant.
Moreover, studies show that even those who truly are
lactose-intolerant are able to digest a cup or two of milk a day, if
consumed at meals, with few if any symptoms. Beyond that, they can
turn to lactose-reduced milk (store-bought or
The milky way: Milk and other
dairy products are the best sources of calcium, which not only keeps
bones strong, but also may help prevent hypertension, heart disease,
colon cancer, and possibly even diabetes. They are also important
sources of other nutrients, notably riboflavin, vitamins A and D,
and several other minerals. Whole milk and products made from it
are, of course, rich in fat. That's why children over the age of
two, as well as adults, should rely on nonfat or low-fat (1%) milk,
yogurt, and other dairy products.