Milk Not Necessarily
Good For You
By Neal D. Barnard, MD
Opinion - Seattle Post Intelligencer

Syndicated columnist Rich Lowry recently asked what anybody could have against cow's milk ("Milk is not your enemy," Oct. 30). The fact that an intelligent columnist such as Lowry could ask such a question shows what an abysmal job the medical community has done of educating people about how foods, including milk, contribute to health problems.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has been publicizing the surprising dangers of cow's milk products since 1992 after a New England Journal of Medicine study of 142 diabetic children showed that every single child had antibodies against a particular cow's milk protein. By 1994, evidence from more than 100 studies showed milk proteins could trigger an autoimmune reaction that can destroy a susceptible child's insulin-producing cells, leading to diabetes. Dr. Benjamin Spock and I held a news conference alerting parents to this potential risk. But even the beloved Dr. Spock was no match for the dairy industry's ability to obfuscate health issues in a deluge of cute "milk mustache" and "got milk?" ads.
Milk's potential problems don't stop at childhood diabetes. Researchers have also turned their attention to the causes of prostate cancer, and milk is squarely in their sights. Remember that cow's milk was designed by nature for growing calves. It contains not only an enormous amount of fat (half its calories) and sugar (one-third its calories) but also dozens of hormones and growth factors that are natural for a rapidly growing calf, but not part of a normal human diet.
Milk's ability to promote rapid growth may be why 16 research studies, including two from Harvard, have shown that milk-drinking men have substantially higher risk of prostate cancer, compared with men who avoid it. Milk apparently alters a man's hormone balance in such a way that cancer cells are more likely to grow and spread.
Of course, milk sometimes presents more immediate symptoms. For the millions of people who are lactose intolerant, a glass of milk can cause painful cramps and diarrhea. Lactose intolerance is not a disease. It simply reflects the normal loss of the milk-digesting enzyme after the age of weaning. A genetic mutation carried by most Caucasians causes this enzyme to persist into adulthood, preventing these symptoms. However, 70 percent of African Americans and Native Americans, 90 percent of Asian Americans and most Hispanic Americans are lactose intolerant, as are many people of Mediterranean heritage.
Unfortunately, although medical doctors have recognized for 30 years that lactose intolerance is as normal and common as blue eyes, the national school lunch program still refuses to provide soymilk or rice milk or even fortified juices as standard alternatives so that kids could pick a drink that won't make them sick.
There was a time when soymilk and rice milk products couldn't compete in the taste department. No more. They now come in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors and in low-fat and calcium-fortified varieties. Schools ought to serve them. But, for now, a school that serves soymilk or rice milk instead of the dairy variety loses its federal support. Such is the power of the dairy industry.
What about calcium? Surprisingly enough, milk does not even promote healthy bones. The Harvard Nurses' Health Study, which followed 78,000 women over a 12-year period, found that those who got the most dairy calcium had no protection at all against osteoporosis. In fact, they suffered more fractures than women who avoided milk. A similar finding emerged in a study of children in their peak bone-building years. Exercise made a big difference for bone density, but variations in dietary calcium -- from dairy products or any other source -- made no difference at all.
What? Milk doesn't protect the bones? Not according to the best evidence we have. It turns out that the studies the dairy industry has used to support a role for milk in bone health were improperly done. Many did not actually test milk at all, but instead used calcium supplements, which may have a better effect on bones. Other studies neglected to control for vitamin D, which is added to milk and has a bone-protecting effect of its own having nothing to do with milk itself. Vitamin D from multivitamins or sunlight on the skin does help protect bones, and milk may be little more than its vehicle -- and not an especially good one at that.
Certainly, kids do need calcium. But there is plenty of calcium in greens, beans, calcium-enriched orange juice and a full range of fortified cereals, soymilks and endless other products. There is no need to risk prostate cancer or bellyaches trying to stomach the calcium in milk.
Let's give our kids a healthier choice.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is a nutrition researcher and author of six books on health and preventive medicine. The committee's Healthy School Lunches Campaign is found at
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