This week we're going to take a break from our series on the cardiovascular system and discuss a dairy study released earlier this month. According to the results of the study conducted out of the University of Cardiff in the UK and as promoted in media throughout the world, drinking a pint of milk a day may protect men against diabetes and heart disease.
The 20-year study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, analyzed how the rates of metabolic syndrome were affected by dairy consumption.
Metabolic syndrome (also known as syndrome X or insulin resistance syndrome) is a cluster of conditions including obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides that increase the risk of heart disease. Metabolic syndrome is said to be the fastest growing disease entity in the world. On the other hand, although it does predict vascular disease and diabetes quite powerfully, it is probably not a true syndrome and should be thought of more as an elaborate risk formula -- increasing the risk of death by some 50%.
According to the study, which tracked 2,375 men between the ages of 45 and 59 over a 20 year period, eating dairy products reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome. The more they consumed, the lower the risk. At the start of the study, 15% had metabolic syndrome and had almost double the risk of coronary artery heart disease and four times the risk of diabetes of those without the syndrome. But the researchers found that men were 62% less likely to have the syndrome if they drank a pint or more of milk every day and 56% less likely to have it if they regularly ate other dairy products.
The more dairy products the men consumed, the less likely they were to have the syndrome.
In fact, although the study tracked a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome with increased dairy consumption, it found little actual correlation between dairy consumption and the incidence of diabetes itself. There were only 7 more cases of diabetes among the lowest consumers of dairy versus the highest. The incidence of heart disease was not tracked.
Also, people who had diabetes at the start of the study were excluded from the results so that we don't know if their condition improved or deteriorated while drinking milk. That would be significant information in determining the overall health value of dairy when it comes to metabolic syndrome.
Why it means nothing
There are a number of problems with the study, but let's start with the two most obvious.
- What were the non milk drinkers drinking?
- What does drinking milk say about the overall diet of the participants?
If not milk, what?
The study only references the amount of milk and dairy products people were consuming -- nothing else -- not, for example, what else they were drinking or eating. The simple fact is that people only drink so much liquid in a day. If they're drinking more milk, they're drinking less of something else. Conversely, if they're drinking less milk, they're drinking more of something else. If that something else is soda pop or sugared energy drinks, that's a problem. Each ounce of soda contains almost a teaspoon of sugar, usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup. That's a major factor in the onset of metabolic syndrome. Tea and coffee drinkers don't necessarily escape scot-free either. Six cups of coffee a day with 2 teaspoons of sugar in each cup still works out to 40 lbs (18.4 K) of sugar a year.
In other words, the so called health benefits attributed to milk in the study may have nothing to do with milk at all. They may instead be a reflection of lowered consumption of more harmful highly-sugared beverages.
A question that occurs to me is: why are men in their forties and fifties drinking milk every day? Is it because they want something to drink with their cookies and cake at lunch like children (probably not), or is it because they are making what they consider to be a conscious health choice (even if misguided)? If so, what does that say about the rest of their diet? We know that people who drink lots of soda pop also tend to be high consumers of fast foods and snack foods. In fact, they're usually sold in tandem, not only in fast food restaurants (KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, for example, are owned by Yum! Brands, a spin-off of PepsiCo) but also in grocery store power aisles. So if the drinking of milk was the result of an attempt by some of the participants to avoid fast foods and sodas, were those men also more likely to have eaten whole grain foods and fresh produce as opposed to fast foods and sugared snacks? We know that fast food diets are more likely to contribute to the onset of metabolic syndrome, and that whole foods are more likely to keep it at bay? It sounds likely that the men drinking milk were eating an overall better diet, but the study doesn't tell us either way. In any case, without that information, the study is meaningless. You could probably come up with the same results (maybe even better) by doing a survey on how much water the men drank -- the more water, the lower the incidence of metabolic syndrome.
Heck, why didn't the researchers just cut to the chase and ask about the participant's sugar intake in foods and beverages?
What do we actually know?
When it comes to dairy, we actually know quite a lot. For example:
- Consumption of cow's milk in children has been linked to a threefold increase in Type 1 diabetes.
- Consumption of milk has been associated with insulin-dependent diabetes in numerous studies.
- Milk consumption is repeatedly promoted as lowering the incidence of obesity, and yet numerous studies indicate that it does just the opposite.
Then, of course, all the Cardiff study looked at were the triggers for Metabolic Syndrome. Perhaps milk is implicated in other problems such as cancer, allergies, arthritis, infection, and toxicity. And it is!
In Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, I talk about a number of the health problems associated with dairy consumption. Those are actually only highlights; there's much more. First of all, the following two sites might be of interest.
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
- The NotMilk homepage
To summarize some of the things that you will find there, there are many, many problems associated with consuming dairy. Many of these are probably conditions you are already noticing in your own body -- particularly those that relate to allergies, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. For example:
- Galactose - Ovarian cancer rates parallel dairy-eating patterns around the world. The culprit seems to be galactose, the simple sugar broken down from the milk sugar lactose.
- Pesticides - concentrate in the milk of both farm animals and humans. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund found widespread pesticide contamination of human breast milk among 1,400 women in forty-six states. The levels of contamination were twice as high among the meat-and-dairy-eating women as among vegetarians.
- Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria - Joseph Beasley, M.D., and Jerry Swift wrote in The Kellogg Report (The Institute of Health Policy and Practice, 1989) that even "moderate use of antibiotics in animal feed can result in the development of antibiotic resistance in animal bacteria - and the subsequent transfer of that resistance to human bacteria."
- Vitamin D Toxicity - Heavy consumption of milk, especially by small children, may result in vitamin D toxicity. Records show that dairies do not carefully regulate how much vitamin D is added to milk. (Milk has been "fortified" with vitamin D ever since deficiencies were found to cause rickets.) A study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (April 30, 1992) showed that of forty-two milk samples, only 12 percent were within the expected range of vitamin D content. Testing of ten infant formula samples revealed seven with more than twice the vitamin D content reported on the label; one sample had more than four times the label amount.
- Growth Hormones - Recently, cows have started to receive growth hormones to increase their milk production, although the long-term effects on humans are unknown.
- Casein - Perhaps the biggest health problem with cow's milk arises from the proteins in it: Cow's milk proteins damage the human immune system. Repeated exposure to these proteins disrupts normal immune function and may eventually lead to disease. Cow's milk contains many proteins that are poorly digested and harmful to the immune system. Fish and meat proteins are much less damaging, while plant proteins pose the least hazard.
Removing dairy from the diet has been shown to shrink enlarged tonsils and adenoids, indicating relief for the immune system -- even more so if you are lactose intolerant.
Similarly, doctors experimenting with dairy-free diets often report a marked reduction in colds, flu's, sinusitis and ear infections. In addition, dairy is a tremendous mucus producer and a burden on the respiratory, digestive and immune systems.
- Colic and Ear Infections - One out of every five infants in the United States suffers bouts of colic. Another common problem among infants receiving dairy, either directly or indirectly, is chronic ear infections. You just don't see this painful condition among infants and children who aren't getting cow's milk into their systems.
- Allergies, Asthma and Sinus Problems - Poorly digested bovine antigens (substances that provoke an immune reaction) like casein become "allergens" in allergic individuals. Dairy products are the leading cause of food allergy, often revealed by diarrhea, constipation and fatigue. Many cases of asthma and sinus infections are reported to be relieved and even eliminated by cutting out dairy. The exclusion of dairy, however, must be complete to see any benefit.
- Arthritis - Antigens in cow's milk may also contribute to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. When antibody-antigen complexes (resulting from an immune response) are deposited in the joints, pain, swelling, redness and stiffness result; these complexes increase in arthritic people who eat dairy products, and the pain fades rapidly after patients eliminate dairy products from their diets.
- Childhood Anemia - Cow's milk causes loss of iron and hemoglobin in infants (one reason the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants not drink cow's milk) by triggering blood loss from the intestinal tract. Some research also shows that iron absorption is blocked by as much as 60 percent when dairy products are consumed in the same meal.
- Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Lung Cancer - A 1989 study in Nutrition and Cancer linked the risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma with the consumption of cow's milk and butter. High levels of the cow's milk protein beta-lactoglobulin have also been found in the blood of lung cancer patients, suggesting a link with this cancer as well.
Concluding that dairy is good for you while ignoring these issues hardly makes sense.
Incompletely digested large dairy proteins, such as casein, become antigens (substances that provoke immune reactions) once they enter the bloodstream in individuals who are sensitive to them. Plus, the milk you buy in the store is not raw milk. If you must drink milk, be smart about your choices:
- Raw organic, if you can find it, avoids many of the problems -- but presents health issues of its own unless you can be sure of the source.
- Organic pasteurized is better than non-organic, but because of the heat used in pasteurization, it presents significantly higher allergy problems than raw.
I do not recommend non-organic, pasteurized, homogenized dairy products under any circumstances.
- And while whey eliminates the casein problem, it still contains the two main allergenic proteins, alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin -- the two most heat sensitive proteins.
- Soy milk, of course, is not an effective alternative, since it is high in allergens itself, blocks the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, and contains high levels of phytoestrogens, which although beneficial in moderate amounts, can be counter-productive in large amounts -- particularly for children.
- Are there any health benefits to drinking raw milk? According to the FDA, no. And if all you measure are protein and fat content and added vitamin D, they are correct. But if you consider that pasteurization involves heating milk to approximately 1450 Fahrenheit for 30 minutes or longer and therefore kills all enzymes and beneficial bacteria in the process, then the answer is not so obvious. Heating the milk to pasteurize it "denatures" dairy proteins making some of them much more allergenic than they are in their natural state. Consider that many cases of asthma and sinus infections are reported to be relieved, and even eliminated, by simply cutting out dairy. And if you toss in the fact that pasteurization makes calcium insoluble and unavailable to the body (a key reason countries with the highest pasteurized dairy consumption have the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world), the health benefits swing decidedly in favor of raw milk.
- Can raw milk become contaminated? Yes, absolutely -- but not often. Most raw milk dairies tend to run extremely clean operations because of the liability issues. And keep in mind that in this recent outbreak only 8 illnesses were reported. We see far more E. coli contamination in meat each year than in raw dairy -- even as a percentage of users. And in fact, we regularly see contamination of pasteurized dairy too, but the FDA never seems to propose that people stop eating meat and pasteurized dairy. It seems raw milk just doesn't have a big enough lobby supporting it.
So am I advocating drinking raw milk?
Not necessarily. I still have issues with some of the proteins in dairy that tend to trigger allergic reactions, whether that dairy is raw or pasteurized. But if you are going to drink milk, raw organic milk is a healthier option than the pasteurized, homogenized moo-cow juice you find in the supermarkets.
I know that peer reviewed studies are the sine qua non of the medical world, but in reality many of them are so much less than they appear. As I have repeatedly pointed out in the past, you can get a study to prove any point you want -- even contradictory points. And once a flawed study is published, it's then cited by other studies over and over again, until utter nonsense becomes incontrovertible "fact." Here are some examples.
Bottom line, when it comes to the current dairy study, pay no attention; it's decidedly flawed.