Moderating the Milk Wars

July 23, 2010 in Health Claims, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

In my blog posts I try to cut through the jargon of the scientific research and tell you about what has been discovered, in ‘plain English’ so that you can make informed decisions about food choices. Frequently I am able to bring to light a fairly simple vision. Today, however, I’m embarking on a territory -- the “milk wars” -- that is not easily simplified; actually it is a murky dark cloud of nutritional smoke between two warring sides, those who advocate 3 or more glasses of milk a day and those who say to avoid it at all costs. First, I’d like to, give you a little background before sharing my thinking on the ‘milk wars.’

A couple of decades ago, I began to notice that my public health nutrition education was falling into a few ‘buckets.’  I was, of course, educated in the era of ‘vitamins, minerals, carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fiber.’ I was certainly closely allied with and educated by way of the ‘nutritionism’ that Michael Pollan so disapprovingly and aptly writes – simplifying the benefits in foods by naming one or two key nutrients they contain rather than considering the contributions of the whole team. What I noticed those couple of decades ago, was that, repetitively, good scientific research  kept coming up with the same advice. It didn’t seem to matter if the researchers were trying to decrease cardiovascular heart disease (CHD), diabetes, certain cancers, or other conditions; the research results seemed to lead to the same answer; that is, different problems were related in the same type of eating, or lack thereof. Having been a longtime proponent of prevention and public health, I was very interested in this observation. Time after time, the advice was to eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, less meat, less animal fats. Now days, you’re probably reading this and thinking; “Why was she so astonished?” It’s because I had been taught that this vitamin, or that mineral solved this deficiency or that toxic situation. This really was a new and better way of looking at nutrition for me. I was delighted to learn that the work of Dr. Ancel Keys began to clarify what I was observing, thinking and telling people. Dr. Keys conducted and wrote on the earliest studies of what I am calling the Mediterranean-style of eating.

The Mediterranean peoples and their Mediterranean Diet were studied in the 1950’s and 1960’s; and written about and published in the 1970’s. The reason Dr. Ancel Keys went to Crete and other areas of the Mediterranean is that they had the highest life expectancy in the world and the lowest rate of CHD (cardiovascular heart disease) – actually 80 to 90% lower than the U.S. at that time. And that was in the face of consuming an unusually high amount of fat (mostly from olives, olive oil, fish, and avocados). In the beginning of studying the Med-style of eating, what stood out above all other factors was the consumption of foods from plant origin, with only modest amounts of animal food sources. That was a humongous difference from the U.S. consumption pattern.

So let’s move on to a sample of what is going on in the ‘milk wars.’

  • Why shouldn’t a ‘whole foods’ advocate not have a pure and simple ‘yes’ answer to the question, “Is milk a good food to include in your diet?” Milk is, after all, a relatively simple ‘whole food;’ it doesn’t need to have preservatives, additives, or artificial colors, or a long list of ingredients. Sure, its from animals, but at least in the Mediterranean at that time they fed the animals green grasses.
  • Milk does naturally have hormones; female animals have hormones in their milk.
  • Cow’s milk does have the sugar lactose; and human breast milk is loaded with the sugar also. But full-term infants make enough lactase to digest it. We humans have been doing it for millennia; long before some got the idea to make animal milk into a special formula.
  • About 80% of the peoples of the world (Native Americans, Asians from the Far East, Southeast Asians, Africans, African-Americans, and Native Australians) do not tolerate lactose after the age of approximately 3 years. Only about 15% of Caucasians in the U.S. are lactose intolerant. My guess is that so many of us have ancestors from cold countries where fresh vegetables were not readily available; so they relied on cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk. So most Caucasians in the U.S. can tolerate milk their entire life.
  • It’s fairly obvious that humans can survive quite nicely without lactose – milk sugar; so we can leave that worry behind.
  • Although the U.S.D.A. (U.S. Department of Agriculture) recommends three cups of dairy a day for all adults, many very esteemed nutritionists disagree with this pronouncement. Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health says that; “We don’t have all of the answers,” as related to the question of milk. He is the head of the Nurses Health Study, and found no link between reported dairy intake and the incidence of broken bones. Willett goes on to say that there is no solid research that shows that milk consumption protects us from osteoporosis. In addition there is evidence that dairy consumption is associated with fatal prostate cancer. He does say that; “One or two cups of milk each day is a safe, reasonable and nutritious goal. But beyond that, the benefits are unclear, and there may be some risk.
  • On the other side of the issue are those like Dr. Connie Weaver, chairman of the Food and Nutrition Department at Purdue University in Indiana.  She declares that anything less than three glasses of milk in a day puts us at risk of not being well-nourished. The fact that her work is funded, in part, by the National Dairy Council, does give me pause. Let’s face it, the Dairy Council is an extremely powerful lobby; just try to talk to those working on the USDA food pyramid committees.
  • Dr. Neal Barnard, a strict vegan and founder of the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine, who we have quoted in the past says; “Milk is nutritionally perfect for one purpose: feeding a calf.” He believes that the natural hormones in milk encourage cancer of the prostate and ovaries.
  • Some of the proponents of milk discuss the fact that the potassium in dairy can help lower blood pressure. But this is a very weak point, because we can easily get plenty of potassium in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, without running the risk of milk’s downsides.
  • Dairy may protect from colorectal cancer as reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

So you see, from this very small sample of the controversial ‘back and forth’ type information gained from various sources; an answer does not seem to be very clear. Although there is no consensus, I think that I may be able to give you a few items to consider as related to the issue of dairy.

  • First, as I stated above, the Mediterranean people (especially Crete, as they used to eat) had the longest life expectancy on earth. They ate limited amounts of dairy. From a review of Keys work, Janet Bond Brill made a suggestion about how dairy products fit into a unified Mediterranean-style of eating. Her suggestion is “weekly consumption of a small amount of low-fat or fat-free dairy (such as flavorful cheeses and yogurt), several servings per week.” ‘Several servings per week’ does not seem to mandate 3 or 4 servings per day. The citizens of Crete seemed to flourish without so much dairy. But here’s the catch, in my mind: Going back to a quote from Keys’ original work. “No main meal in the Mediterranean countries is replete without lots of verdure (greens).” The greens were often prepared with virgin olive oil, which itself is an additional source of antioxidants. The greens are a source of calcium; nicely not an animal source, but all the same, eating that much calcium every day at dinner, seems to be something that we Americans are not doing. Maybe we should consider going back to days where greens (spinach, collards, chard, and so on) were a regular menu item.
  • Without adding any additional quotes, I should say that I’ve felt for a very long time that big agriculture (beef and dairy councils, and the like; subsidized grains (like corn); and all such organizations with vested interests) should not be allowed to assert any pressure on the setting of the Food Guide Pyramid. The Food Guide Pyramid should exist for the benefit of the public’s health, not for the financial benefit of business segments.
  • If we bring the consumption of animal protein to a reasonable amount (which will curb the intake of calcium-wasting phosphorus), then maybe we can discover that our bones can stay healthy without 3 or 4 servings of dairy a day. (Note from above: Willett didn’t find that milk consumption made bones safe anyway.)
  • If you’re curious about what I myself do as related to dairy products, it is: I almost every day have one glass of nonfat milk. In addition, some days I have Greek yogurt on my pancakes or in other recipes. It’s interesting to me that my bones have become denser as measured on my bone scan, since I reduced the amount of milk that I drink. That is certainly anecdotal, but it is a fact. I am not a vegetarian, but consume fairly small servings of meat. I have many meals without meat, but few days go by without lots and lots of vegetables, not skimping on green leafy ones laden with natural and easily absorbable calcium. I guess that I would have to say, that I like a moderate stance, like that of Dr. Walter Willett and of Janet Bond Brill. I like the saying, “Moderation in all Things.”

So I invite you to join with me on the sidelines of the “milk wars” and turn away from the arguments on either extreme.  A moderate amount of milk, soft cheeses, or yoghurt is not satisfying to the extreme positions on either side of the dairy divide – but perhaps it can satisfy your palette and healthy eating plan.  We do need to seek dairy sources that keep pesticides low, and do not overuse antibiotics and hormones to increase milk production. Prudent use of tasty sprinkles of hard cheeses can add flavor highlights without adding too much saturated fats – or addictive appeal from this deadly combination of tasty fat and salt. But the path of moderation can lead to good health, and can also be a part of a yummy eating plan.

** Some of you may be wondering why there have been no recipes lately. The answer is in the pictures below. I did purchase the berries at the berry stand but didn't make any new recipes to add,  along with this past Tuesday's post. Recipe development seems to be a little too difficult for me when the summer mountains are calling for a nice hike and a few days at the cabin.  See below.

Berries are one of the joys of summer.

They're almost patriotic!

These were the largest, tastiest, best textured cherries ever.

Goodies from a local stand.

The reason summer recipe development has slowed.

This was a really fun hike through rocks and streams.