Got Milk?

The ongoing, raging debate on the health benefits of milk

by Dr. Susan Blum, M.D.
posted on April 25th 2010
Got Milk?

There is a raging debate on the health benefits of milk going on right now in our country. The dairy industry is a multibillion−dollar industry, and has convinced us that we need milk to grow, to be healthy, and to have strong bones. 

It turns out this is pretty far from the truth. In fact there is much research to support just the opposite. There has been an increase in osteoporosis in the past decade and the dairy industry would like you to believe it is a “dairy−deficiency” disease. In fact, recent studies have linked the over−use of antacids to osteoporosis since the resulting low−stomach acid prevents your body from absorbing calcium. In my opinion, the single best thing to do to prevent osteoporosis is to stop the antacids and increase Vitamin D consumption. 

In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by Senator George McGovern published a document called Dietary Goals for the United States. The Committee issued a set of guidelines calling on Americans to cut down their consumption of meat and dairy. They were investigating the relationship between diet and chronic disease, especially cardiovascular disease. The cattle and dairy industry squashed the results of the study (McGovern lost his Senate seat) and instead the culprit was reported as “saturated fat” with no association to the actual food and the original findings of the study. 

As you can see, the dairy industry has been a formidable foe to the dissemination of factual information about dairy consumption and health. 

Another public misconception concerns the relative importance of Vitamin D vs. Calcium in preventing and treating osteoporosis, the diagnosis of which now surpasses 40 million women in our country. The fact is that without adequate Vitamin D, there is a higher risk of osteoporosis regardless of calcium intake, and, in fact, research studies conducted at Harvard, Yale, and the National Institute of Health have supported this fact. In other words, Vitamin D, the sunlight vitamin, is more important. In the northern hemisphere, the prevalence of deficiency is about 80% in my New York patient population. The sun is just not strong enough and there isn’t enough of it. So, again dairy doesn’t help us here. Other non−dairy products like soy, rice, almond, hemp milk, are fortified with Vitamin D, just like milk, so there is no disadvantage to switching. Women with osteoporosis should aim for Vitamin D levels over 60. 

So, what else aren’t we being told about the reasons not to eat so much dairy? 

We mammals need the enzyme lactase to digest lactose, the sugar found in dairy. Between the ages of eighteen months and four years, we lose more than ninety percent of this enzyme. The undigested lactose and the acidic nature of pasteurized milk encourage the growth of undesirable bacteria in our intestines. These “bad bacteria” can have a negative impact on our immune system and create inflammation in our body. All enzymes in our body function better in an alkaline environment, and all disease, especially cancer cells, thrive in acidic conditions. Dairy and animal products create a more acid environment. It is also believed that this acid environment actually contributes to causing osteoporosis, since the calcium is released from the bone in order to buffer the acid. In fact, The National Dairy Council’s own study revealed that the animal protein content of dairy actually leaches calcium from the body. A Yale University study concluded that the USA has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis, followed by Sweden and Finland. These countries also happen to be the largest consumers of meat, milk and other animal foods. 

People with urine that is more acid (above a pH of 7. 0 − you can check this with a pH strip bought in any pharmacy) excrete more calcium in the urine, which represents a loss of calcium from the body, again thought to be released to buffer the acid. In fact, one of the ways I work with women to treat osteoporosis is to teach them to eat a more alkaline diet and we do that by eliminating or reducing animal foods including dairy, from their diet, and measure the urine pH to follow the effectiveness of the diet. 

Another physical effect of dairy for some people is the production of excessive mucus which sometimes shows up as chronic ear infections, sinus infections, and/or the development of a cold or allergies to fight the dairy invasion. Dairy is also linked to a host of other problems, including acne, anemia, anxiety, arthritis, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, fibromyalgia, headaches, heartburn, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, joint pain, poor immune function, colic, obesity, heart disease and a raft of cancer conditions. 

Many dietitians and nutritionists will still tell you that dairy products are good for you and your family. They are often just misinformed. Other important issues your dietitian or doctor might not know and that you should consider in choosing to include dairy in your diet are concerns about other things you ingest that are secreted in the milk of cows, such as bovine growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, steroids and other hormones, same as you do when you eat meat. 

All the nutrients found in milk are easily found elsewhere. Milk really is not a good source of minerals and in fact you get much higher levels of manganese, chromium, selenium, and magnesium from fruits and vegetables. Those same fruits and vegetables are high in boron which helps lessen the loss of calcium through urine. Consuming high amounts of dairy blocks iron absorption, which contributes to iron deficiency. And finally, the dairy industry wants you to believe it is the only source of calcium. By eating the following foods you will get adequate calcium: fortified grains, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage, kelp, seaweed, watercress, chickpeas, broccoli, red beans, soybeans, tofu and raw nuts. And don’t forget the Vitamin D for the calcium absorption!

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