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Why milk may not be good for you

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Role of milk in human nutrition questioned by Harvard Pediatrician

A Harvard pediatrician, David Ludwig is sounding the alarm about the drinking too much milk that he says may be making us fat. Despite ad campaigns that milk ‘does a body good’, Ludwig says in a JAMA pediatrics opinion piece that may be the wrong advice.

We have all been told milk is an important source of calcium and Vitamin D. But the low-fat varieties that are recommended to help us avoid saturated fat and heart disease are fortified with sugar and calories that can lead to excess weight gain, Ludwig says.

Why promoting 3 glasses of milk a day should be reconsidered

The current U.S. recommendation is to drink 3 servings a milk a day for strong bones. Vitamin D and calcium are important for new bone growth for children and for preventing osteoporosis related to aging.

Ludwig says, As a result [of the current recommendations] Americans are consuming billions of gallons of milk a year, presumably under the assumption that their bones would crumble without them.”

He cites a recent meta-analysis showing rates of fractures are actually lower in countries that do not consume milk. He also states recommendations for calcium intake are likely overestimated in the U.S. and are higher than that recommended in the UK.

But he says that just isn't true because there are plenty other options for getting our calcium from other foods from eating a high quality diet that includes leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, sardines and kale.

Ludwig acknowledges not everyone eats a high quality diet. Children especially need vitamin D, so for some, three cups a day might be important. Milk is inexpensive and easily accessible.

Greg Miller, executive vice president for the National Dairy Council thinks Americans are not likely to switch their diets any time soon.

“To skip milk -- but continue to get the recommended levels of nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and protein -- would require a big change in diet for many Americans.” He adds kids are not likely to switch from drinking milk to eating spinach, kale and bok choy.

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Ludwig points out kids often drink chocolate milk, which for many is the only way to get them to consume their dairy. But he also says without the saturated fat that we’re told to avoid, its less tasty. What you end up with is more sugar and calories. Giving kids low-fat chocolate milk might be “The worst possible situation”, Ludwig says.

One cup of low-fat chocolate milk contains 64 ‘empty calories’ from added sugar and solid fats according to the USDA’s “Choose my Plate”.

One cup of 2 percent milk contains almost as much sugar as a chocolate chip cookie.

Sugary drinks that might be contributing to obesity have been a recent focus of public health messages, including bans on super-sized soft drinks. Yet, Miller says low-fat chocolate milk is never discussed as a high calorie sugary drink.

But perhaps more importantly, Ludwig writes in the editorial that humans have no nutritional need for animal milk, which proponents against drinking the product have been saying for years.

He writes: “Anatomically modern humans presumably achieved adequate nutrition for millennia before domestication of dairy animals.” He points out populations throughout the world drink little or no milk for reasons such as lactose intolerance and other reasons such as lack of availability or personal preference.

Ludwig suggests the role of cow’s milk in human nutrition should be “reconsidered”, which parallels an impetus from the Nutritional Science Initiative (NuSI) about the role of current recommended nutritional guidelines as an obesity contributor.

You might ask yourself about studies showing milk proteins can satisfy hunger and that drinking milk can increase athletic performance and recovery times. Perhaps the answer to studies lies in bias, highlighted by a 2007 PLOS Medicine report that concluded: "Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors' products, with potentially significant implications for public health."

That would also be happy news for cows that are forced to produce milk unnaturally, give birth every twelve months to keep the milk flowing, artificially inseminated and injected with BGH hormone that might contribute to cancer in humans.

What Ludwig is recommending is that low-fat milk consumption be added to the list of high-calorie beverages that should be limited, rather than promoting milk, which people in all age groups are encouraged to drink. Low-fat milk also does nothing to promote satiety or promote weight loss, the Harvard pediatrician says.

Updated: 3/15/2017