Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Milk Myth

When I was growing up, milk and other dairy products were considered to be among the healthiest of foods. Kids, in particular, were encouraged to drink milk liberally. It was even considered to be healthier for babies than their mother's milk and breastfeeding was generally discouraged. This was largely in response to the propaganda machine of the dairy industry which targeted parents, doctors, and heavily lobbied governments to make sure that milk was on the top of the list of healthy food choices in their various official food guides. Our society was a lot more patriarchal in those days and almost no one would ever question someone in authority like a doctor. So, if your doctor told you not to nurse your baby and put her/him on a dairy-based infant formula instead, and all through their childhood and adolescence to make sure they drank lots of the white stuff, that was what you did. It didn't matter that doctors received extremely little, if any, schooling in nutrition (not that it would have mattered much as there was very little good science behind nutrition until the last 10-20 years). They were the experts!

When it comes down to it, most doctors, even if they are among the few who are more open-minded and less stuck in a narrow reductionistic paradigm, really don't have a lot of time to keep on top of the latest research. As a result, they get most of their info from product literature provided by pharmaceutical companies and other commercial interests. Of course they have the Canadian and American Food Guides to fall back on when it comes to nutrition. But these are hugely influenced by lobbying efforts on behalf of major commercial sectors such as the dairy and meat industries.

Now, to be fair, the natural health product industry plays the same game, although they don't have the size, money and influence to do it as well as the larger, better established industries. If you go looking for information from people who work in health food stores or from many natural health practitioners (especially if they sell products), no matter how good their intentions you'll find that they are getting most of their information from biased product literature provided by the natural health product industry.

Anyway, getting back to milk, until recently most of the research out there was largely funded by the dairy industry. However, more recently there have been some decent independent studies that have been coming to very different conclusions than what the dairy industry would like us to believe. As a result, some pretty high profile researchers have begun to poke holes into some of the milk myths. For instance, see:

Some of the myths that are questioned here are: skim milk is healthier than whole milk; milk is the best source of calcium; most of the supposed health benefits of milk are unproven. They also point out that milk consumption is associated with a number of potential negative health consequences and recommend that whole milk be consumed rather than skim milk and it should be considered an optional part of our diet (no minimum daily requirement as the various official food guides recommend) and consumed in small quantities, if at all.

I would add to that to only consume certified organic dairy products. It's interesting that many people are more inclined to purchase organic fruits and veggies but aren't as concerned about dairy and meat products. The rationale is that chemicals are sprayed directly on to plants, but this is not the case with animals. I'm sure cost is one of the factors behind these attitudes. Dairy and meat tend to be among the more costly food products and when you add the organic premium they can get pretty expensive. My answer to that is to buy organic but eat less. Most North Americans eat far too much meat and dairy anyway. Aside from the fact that commercially raised animals are unhealthy from being stressed out, fed diets that are unnatural for their species, being raised in inhumane conditions, and pumped full of drugs and hormones, toxins such as agricultural chemicals become more concentrated as you move up the food chain. Although it varies depending on the chemical and the animal, on average it is about ten times at each level. That means that, since commercially raised livestock are fed commercially grown feed, the levels of agricultural chemicals in the tissues of these animals is approximately ten times the level of the plants that they are fed. Also, many animals (even herbivores) are given feed that contains animal products which will raise the levels of these chemicals in their tissues to even more than ten times. As a result, animal products are the most important foods to eat certified organic!

Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) are an excellent source of calcium,
magnesium, potassium, iron and other important trace minerals.

Getting back to milk, the dairy is the best source of calcium myth is being questioned as well. For instance, apparently bone fractures are more common in countries that have the highest dairy consumption! The authors point out that significant levels of calcium can also be obtained from leafy greens, nuts and seeds. Many herbs are a good source of calcium as well as other minerals that are necessary for the proper assimilation and utilization of calcium. These include the leaves of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium intybus) and nettle (Urtica dioica). Although I usually prefer to use herbs in the form of fresh plant tinctures for medicinal purposes, when they are being used for their nutritive properties it is best to take them as a tea because the amount of actual herb per unit dose is much higher to make a cup of tea than what is necessary for a dose of tincture. Most nutrients need to be consumed in much larger quantities than other more pharmacological constituents of herbs. Of course, you'll get even more minerals and other nutrients if you eat them! Many green leafy herbs are both edible and very nutritious.

Although calcium is a very important nutrient, the whole issue of how much we need is now being questioned as well. Some recent research has demonstrated that too much calcium is associated with negative health consequences, especially cardiovascular disease. For instance, check these out:

I included both of them because although one of the studies only found this association in men, but not women, the other one focused exclusively on women. It is interesting to note that there seems to be a stronger correlation when people take calcium supplements. It would have been interesting to see what they would have found had they taken into account the different forms of calcium that were supplemented.

Our obsession with calcium is one of the factors behind the recommendation to consume more dairy products. However, we seem to be getting carried away with this. Calcium supplements are one of the most common supplements recommended by doctors.

When I see new clients, I am often shocked at how much calcium they have been told to supplement by doctors and even other natural health practitioners. I often see people taking 50-100% the recommended daily amount. This is absurd! It is true that our body does not absorb 100% of the calcium we consume, however, the efficiency of calcium absorption increases the more we need it. It is also true that calcium levels are only high in a small percentage of foods, nevertheless there is calcium in everything that we eat (except in some heavily processed junk foods and beverages). In addition, doctors in particular often recommend the worst calcium supplements. Firstly, they recommend forms that are poorly absorbed such as calcium carbonate, which is the most common form found in pharmaceutical brands. Secondly, they often recommend supplements that only contain calcium and possibly some vitamin D. The latter is necessary for proper calcium absorption. Most calcium supplements contain 200-400 IU of vitamin D. Recent research has demonstrated that many people are deficient in vitamin D, so these amounts are not enough for most people. In addition, our body has to maintain a very delicate balance between many minerals. If some minerals are taken in excess it disturbs this balance, both by the increased availability of the supplemented minerals, and because excessive intake of some minerals will actually deplete our body of others. As a result, calcium should not be taken on its own. Ideally, at the very least it should be taken with vitamin D, magnesium, zinc and copper, but preferably with manganese, silicon and possibly a few other trace minerals as well. Usually the best way to take calcium is as part of a good multi mineral complex.

Here I am hugging a dolomite (dolostone) boulder. Dolomite is one of the sources of calcium carbonate.
I don't know about you, but I don't absorb rocks very well. However, I do enjoy hanging out with them!

In my practice, I rarely recommend calcium. If someone is a bit low in this mineral, it can usually be addressed through diet - even without dairy products. In some situations and for therapeutic purposes I may recommend it, but rarely more than 200-300 mg per day, always in a well absorbed form such as calcium citrate or ascorbate, and always in combination with a decent amount of vitamin D (at least 1,000 IU) and other minerals to balance things out.

So, lets get back to milk and other dairy products. Dairy is one of the most common food allergies or sensitivities in our society. This is related to a lot of factors that are common in our society: poor diet and lifestyle practices; lack of exercise; general toxicity; stress and other emotional and psychological factors. All of these predispose us to many chronic health conditions including allergies and food sensitivities. Add to this that most of the dairy products we consume come from sick animals; are laced with drugs, hormones, agricultural chemicals and other toxins; and that milk by nature contains proteins that are irritating to our digestive tract and, in general, is over-consumed (we are more likely to develop sensitivities to foods that we consume in excess), and it's not surprising that so many people don't tolerate it well or at all. In my practice I often find dairy allergies or sensitivities associated with obesity, diabetes, and chronic inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract, skin and respiratory system. As a result, I usually have people with these kinds of conditions reduce or even eliminate dairy from their diet, depending on the individual case.

One interesting side note, in ayurvedic and siddha medicine, two ancient healing traditions from India, they extol the benefits of milk, considering it to be one of the most perfect foods. They sometimes even recommend that herbs be boiled in milk! I once had a conversation with an ayurvedic practitioner about this. I explained that I so often see milk consumption associated with chronic health conditions. It was his belief that this is because the milk we consume in the West is from sick animals, full of chemicals, pasteurized and refrigerated. He believed that the processes of pasteurization and refrigeration denature (alter the structure of) the proteins in milk making it more harmful than beneficial. I don't know if this is true, but it's something worth considering. In India, until recently, very few people had refrigeration. They usually obtained their milk fresh each day from free ranging cattle, boiled it and either used it right away or cultured it to make curd. When I was in India in the early 80's, I still had a very severe allergy to dairy products (which I eventually overcame). Although I could not tolerate dairy products in any quantity when I was at home in Canada, I could tolerate them in small amounts over there. Apparently, there is (or was) something very different about their dairy products.

Many people in India obtain their milk from Brahma cattle (Bos indicus).
Of course, you won't get much milk from this one!

The bottom line here is that milk and other dairy products are not as beneficial as they are promoted to be; are particularly problematic for a growing segment of our population who have various kinds of sensitivities to them; and can have some serious negative health consequences when over-consumed. For those who can tolerate them, it is best to consume only certified organic dairy products, and only in moderation.


  1. In your photo comment, you write - "Of course, you won't get much milk from this one!".. I'd be surprised if you get any.. that's a MALE !

    lactose intolerance of most of the world is from the milk of bos taurus (A1 beta-casein protiens). The milk from Bos-Indicus is A2 beta casein. Also, the indian cow, in india does not require any medication, hormones or suppliments, and have a productive life of over 15 years. Whereas the high-yielding bos-taurus hybrids are pumped with hormones & antibiotics, and her productive life is 2 years & her milk is loaded with pus & blood cells.
    Of course the Indian Cow & her milk is very different.!

    1. The fact that he is a male was precisely my point!

      Lactose intolerance and allergies to milk are two very different things. Nevertheless you make some important points. I see a lot of people of Indian ancestry who move to North America and continue to consume the same amount of dairy that they did in India suffering from many negative health consequences as a result – even if it is certified organic. Clearly the milk in India is very different.