The Milk Myth
A recent study from Harvard has echoed what integrative physicians have been saying for years:
There is little if any reason to give a child a bottle or glass of milk.
Health Problems Associated with Dairy
In their piece in JAMA Pediatrics, Harvard-trained pediatrician David Ludwig and Harvard physician and nutritionist Walter Willett challenge the commonly touted arguments for consuming dairy.1
Their insights include the following:
- Humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk;
- Fat free milk does not keep us trim, and may in fact increase our risk of obesity;
- There is no evidence regarding the safety of humans consuming the growth hormones found in milk; and
- The countries that drink the most milk have the highest rates of osteoporosis.
In addition to these above insights, I have also noticed a pattern of ailments that seem to crop up in the patients who regularly consume dairy. In my family practice, I have observed these conditions in both adults and children:
- Congestion of the sinuses and ears. This can manifest as mouth breathing, recurrent sinus infections, headaches, migraines, inner ear fullness, recurrent ear infections, trouble hearing, and the subsequent need for the surgical placement of ear tubes in children.
- Constipation. Dairy is among the most constipating foods. I have seen severe constipation resolve in both adults and children simply by going dairy free.
- Inflammation. Dairy – particularly pasteurized – contains an inflammatory substance known as arachidonic acid. For this reason, dairy is one of the foods to avoid if you’re struggling with conditions like arthritis or headaches.
- Anemia. Milk can be quite irritating to a baby’s gastrointestinal tract, affecting the gut’s ability to absorb important nutrients. This irritation can also cause micro bleeding of the intestines, which leads to anemia.
- Type I Diabetes. Unlike type II diabetes, type I diabetes is an autoimmune condition. This means that the body’s immune system goes haywire, attacking the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type I diabetes is also known as “skinny diabetes,” as it can affect even those who exercise and are slim. This condition used to be quite rare, but like all autoimmune diseases, the incidence rate of type I diabetes is on the rise. What’s equally alarming is that the disease is now presenting in children at increasingly younger and younger ages. (And no, it’s likely not because we’re getting better at diagnosing it). The root of this autoimmune disease is multi-factorial, encompassing both genetic and environmental factors, but a clear link between the consumption of cow’s milk and the incidence of type I diabetes has been established.2,3
- Osteoporosis? Although the dairy industry has spent incredible amounts of money to make us believe that milk makes our bones strong, the scientific evidence just isn’t there. Consuming more dairy doesn’t lower the risk of a fracture – in fact, the countries that consume the most dairy have the highest rates of osteoporosis.4 It’s also important to remember that our bones need more than just calcium to be strong: all the calcium in the world doesn’t do much good without magnesium, vitamin D3, and vitamin K2 to help our bones actually integrate the calcium we get from foods like vegetables, beans, nuts, and sardines. Weight-bearing exercise is also extremely effective at enhancing bone density, and is much more important than milk consumption for protecting the bones.
What About Low Fat Milk?
Like most naturopathic physicians, Ludwig and Willett argue that low fat milk is not a health food. Most Americans mistakenly believe that eating foods high in natural fats (like dairy, avocado, nuts, bacon, and olive oil) will lead to obesity and heart disease. This misinformation has in large part contributed to the obesity epidemic and our alarmingly high rates of heart attack and stroke.
Good quality fats not only boost the metabolism, but actually increase satiety – that sensation of feeling full after a meal.
What’s more, the low fat fad goes hand-in-hand with a higher consumption of sugars and carbohydrates. When the fat is removed from a food, a significant amount of flavor is lost. Adding more sugar, salt, and artificial flavoring is how manufacturers compensate for the lost flavor.
And we all know that despite what we were told in the 1990’s, that fat does not make us fat. But sugar does.
In the case of milk, once the fat is removed, what remains are water and a sugar known as lactose. For this reason, fat free milk raises blood sugar. (Don’t even get me started on chocolate milk! It contains more sugar than soda!)
In fact, numerous studies have shown that those who consume low fat milk products actually gain more weight than those who consume whole fat milk products.5,6
In other words: Low fat makes YOU fat!
…But what about the saturated fat in whole milk? Doesn’t that cause heart disease? In fact, the evidence linking saturated fats and heart disease is contended.7 Low fat foods do not protect against heart disease.
Other Sources of Calories, Other than Milk?
In the case where a mother is unable to produce enough breast milk for her baby and cannot find a milk donor, supplementing with formula is necessary to ensure the baby has enough calories and nutrients to grow. In this case, a formula prepared from cow’s milk may be appropriate. I tend to steer parents away from conventional formulas, however guiding them instead toward organic or non-GMO preparations like Earth’s Best or Baby’s Only. Whenever possible, a goat milk formula (such as Kabrita) is preferred over cow’s milk.
I generally recommend that parents avoid giving babies dairy from cows until at least 18 months of age, when the baby’s digestive system is better equipped to properly digest the larger proteins found in cow’s milk.
But milk isn’t the only source of calories for a child. Calories and nutrients are bountiful in a myriad of other foods, such as bone broth, avocado, sweet potato, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, fish, fish oil, olive oil, organ meats, and animal flesh.
But What About the Calcium? Milk Has Calcium! That’s Good, Right?
The milk lobby has spent millions of dollars to make us think that milk = calcium = healthy. But the form of calcium found in cow’s milk is actually quite hard to absorb and assimilate, making dairy a poor choice for delivering calcium to the bones. Furthermore, studies have shown the countries that consume the highest quantities of milk have the highest rates of osteoporosis (low bone density), further challenging the validity of the claim that milk helps build strong bones.
Look at a label of cow’s milk and compare it to that of almond, organic soy, coconut, or hemp milk. Cow’s milk isn’t any higher in calcium than milk alternatives. Dark leafy greens, broccoli, nuts, seeds, legumes, and small fish (like sardines and kippers) are all rich in calcium and a variety of other minerals. Plus the forms of calcium in these foods are much more absorbable by the body. Nixing the milk will not deprive your child of any of the important minerals s/he needs.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of cow’s milk and regular (sweetened) almond milk:
Furthermore, a child’s need for calcium is likely overstated. All the calcium in the world is somewhat useless to the bone unless there is enough vitamin D3, vitamin K2, and other minerals to help get that calcium integrated into the bony matrix. For this reason, I recommend that most children be on a vitamin D3+K2 supplement.
One of the best ways to build bone density is with weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, running, doing yoga, and lifting weights. Exercise plays a huge role in bone health; milk does not.8
In short: Beyond infancy, there is little if any reason to give a child a bottle, sippie cup, or glass of animal milk.
Dairy Can Still be Part of a Healthy Diet… In Moderation
Some people cannot tolerate dairy at all, but most can have a little bit here and there without any trouble.
When choosing dairy products, look for the whole fat versions, and always choose organic.
I recommend using dairy lightly, like a condiment.
Some tasty and healthy ways to enjoy organic dairy include:
- Goat cheese crumbled atop a spinach salad
- A light sprinkle of cheddar cheese on rice and beans
- Tzatziki yogurt dip on top of a piece of steak
- A scoop of plain whole fat yogurt or sour cream stirred into a bowl of borscht
- A dollop of homemade whipped cream atop a bowl of berries
But a tall glass of milk?
Doesn’t do a body good.
References JAMA Pediatr. 2013;167(9):788-789. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.2408.
Link: http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1704826 Sargent J. Diabetes. Altered gut microbial networks linked to islet cell autoimmunity. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2014 Jun;10(6):313. doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2014.43. Epub 2014 Apr 1.
Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.ezproxy.ncnm.edu/pubmed/24686201 Schrezenmeir J, Jagla A. Milk and diabetes. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Apr;19(2 Suppl):176S-190S.
Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10759142 Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health. 1997 Jun;87(6):992-7.
Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9224182 Berkey CS, Rockett HR, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005 Jun;159(6):543-50. Milk, dairy fat, dietary calcium, and weight gain: a longitudinal study of adolescents.
Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15939853 Cara B. Ebbeling, PhD; Janis F. Swain, MS, RD; Henry A. Feldman, PhD; William W. Wong, PhD; David L. Hachey, PhD; Erica Garcia-Lago, BA; David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD. Effects of Dietary Composition on Energy Expenditure During Weight-Loss Maintenance. JAMA. 2012;307(24):2627-2634. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.6607.
Link: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1199154 Lawrence GD. Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Adv Nutr. 2013 May 1;4(3):294-302. doi: 10.3945/an.113.003657.
Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Dietary+Fats+and+Health%3A+Dietary+Recommendations+in+the+Context+of+Scientific+Evidence1 Lanou AJ, Berkow SE, Barnard ND. Calcium, dairy products, and bone health in children and young adults: a reevaluation of the evidence. Pediatrics. 2005;115:736-743.
Link summarizing the study findings: http://www.pcrm.org/good-medicine/2005/spring/new-pcrm-study-shatters-milk-myth-childrens-bone
Image comparing milk nutrition facts courtesy of: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_C2Ld5EQeHjo/TPWdinjSyaI/AAAAAAAAAPQ/q2DC-DOpKYo/s640/compare+milk.jpg0