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.
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!
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!