On the Table

Got milk? May be time to rethink that

CORRESPONDENTOctober 6, 2010 

Forgive me for saying it: Talking about a diet without milk takes a stab at a sacred cow.

In my last column, I explained why lactose intolerance is increasingly common in the U.S. It's part of the reason why so many new, good-tasting, nondairy alternatives such as almond milk and rice milk are popping up in the supermarket.

This isn't a surprise to nutritionists.

It's also why I was asked to write a book called "Living Dairy-Free for Dummies."

As our communities become more diverse, our majority Caucasian population, filled with milk-tolerant people of Northern and Northwestern European descent, is being replaced by people who have less ability to digest dairy foods.

Those people represent the majority of the world's adults.

And despite the fact that we've made milk a cornerstone of the American diet, it isn't natural for humans to drink milk from a cow.

Supersize doses of dairy exacerbate other health challenges.

Dairy downsides

It's a (sour cream-topped) political hot potato, but it's important to put the practice of a dairy-filled diet under scrutiny. The health implications go beyond lactose intolerance and milk allergies. They also include:

Your heart health. Along with red meats, dairy products are the leading source of artery-clogging saturated fat in our diets. Even low-fat dairy products are high in saturated fat.

Heart disease is a leading killer of both men and women in the U.S., so it makes sense to do what you can to minimize your risk. To avoid getting too much saturated fat from your diet, choose only nonfat varieties, eat dairy sparingly - like a condiment - or go dairy-free.

Cancer connections. Researchers are examining a potential link between high intakes of lactose - the amount found in three cups of milk per day - and increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Other research suggests a link between milk consumption and increased risk for prostate cancer. A Harvard study of male health professionals found greater risks of advanced or fatal cases of prostate cancer among men who drank two or more glasses of milk each day.

Weight gain. Claims suggesting that drinking milk controls weight are misleading. Long-term studies show no benefits for weight-loss from eating yogurt or drinking cow's milk.

In fact, cow's milk is relatively high in calories, especially low-fat or whole milk. Research on the relationship between beverage consumption and weight suggest that you and I don't cut back on food calories when we get calories from our drinks.

In the long run, caloric beverages are more likely to make you gain, not lose, weight.

Hard on the planet

Beyond your own health, there are planetary health issues to consider. Large-scale animal agriculture operations, including milk production and distribution, are substantial contributors to the production of greenhouse gases thought to cause climate change.

They also make intensive use of resources, including water and petroleum, contributing to air, water and soil pollution.

For more on this topic, take a look at a 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, "Livestock's Long Shadow," available online.

In our diets, dairy foods are so common that we don't think twice about them. But you should.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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