The myth that milk does a body good or is in any way a health food is officially crumbling (along with cheerios lowering cholesterol and Nutella being a part of a well balanced breakfast). Large-scale studies over the past few years such as The China Study and The Nurses Health Study contain strong evidence that milk is not the healthy beverage we have always thought, but it is quite possibly contributing to the very diseases it was supposed to prevent, such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and cancers.
Myth: Milk is necessary for bone health
This tends to be the loudest of all arguments in favor of milk. Parents are very concerned that their children should grow up with strong bones and healthy teeth. And, as women age and their bone mineral density decreases, milk becomes an apparently attractive source for bone health.
So where did the myth that cow’s milk was necessary for bone health come from? Initially, I blamed the cows. They most certainly have some culpability in spreading this myth as they arrogantly walk around their fields, with their huge stature and strong bones. Why wouldn’t humans want to emulate these big boned bovine beasts? But then I realized that cows don’t drink milk. They drink water and eat a plant-based diet consisting primarily of grass.
So far as I am aware there have been no epidemics of osteoporotic cows in America, Europe, Asia or Africa but if that does occur, I have no doubt there will be plenty of milk and synthetic calcium supplements to cure them. Just to be clear, this is not unique to cows. Other large boned animals such as elephants, bison, gorillas, boars, hippopotamus and giraffes all subsist exclusively on water and a plant-based diet, not to mention the 97 million year old 100 ton titanosaur dinosaur named Argentinosaurus who ate nothing but plants and drank no milk but had a femur the size of a house.
Secondly, humans only have a brief relationship with cow’s milk. For millions of years our Paleolithic ancestors lived amazingly healthy lives without the benefit of cow’s milk. Current examinations of their bones show they were slightly taller than us modern humans and had a high nutrient dense diet that was lactose free.
Thirdly, milk is a poor source of calcium. In every 100 grams of calcium, humans absorb 32 grams. This is much lower than calcium rich green leafy vegetables. For example, for every 100 grams of brussel sprouts the body absorbs nearly 64 grams, nearly twice the absorption of milk. Kale and spinach also have much higher absorption rates than cow’s milk. Interestingly, calves absorb nearly 100% of the calcium in cow’s milk.
If you haven’t been swayed, let’s look at the research
In 1976, the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) began looking at factors that influence women’s health. Information was provided by 238,000 nurse participants making NHS one of the “largest and longest running investigations of factors that influence women’s health.” This massive study concluded that there was no “protective effect of increased milk consumption on fracture risk.”
The NHS study also found that “those who drank more than one glass of milk per day had a 45% higher hip fracture rate than those who drank much less milk”.
Is it possible that drinking milk depletes calcium in bones? Another Harvard study found that “in countries with the highest dairy consumption such as Norway, Sweden, and the United States the number of hip fractures is 50 times greater than such countries as New Guinea and South Africa which have extremely low consumption of dairy and other animal products.”
Myth: Milk is a good source of protein because it is a complete protein.
A complete protein is one that contains the 9 essential amino acids that the body does not produce but that are necessary to produce the tens of thousands of proteins the body uses every single day. It is true that milk is a complete protein but there are many healthy sources of complete proteins.
The problem with milk is that in many cases, milk proteins create an immune response or allergy. I am not referring to lactose intolerance. Here I am referring to a specific allergy to the proteins in milk, principally casein and whey. Milk allergy is very common and much more significant in children and can have lasting and damaging affects. Various studies have shown a link between milk allergy and asthma, not to mention gastro intestinal complications.
Myth: Although milk does contain both bovine and synthetic hormones, they have never been proven to be harmful.
While no one denies there are both natural and synthetic hormones in our milk, the debate is centered upon whether or not these hormones affect us. In the 1950s the majority of dairy cattle were injected with diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was also used as an anti-miscarriage drug in pregnant women.
DES was phased out both in humans and dairy cattle in the 1970’s because it was linked to increased rates vaginal cancer in humans. Currently, dairy cattle are injected with rBGH, which means recombinant bovine growth hormone. Recombinant bovine growth hormone is not only injected into dairy cows but is produced naturally by cows to increase milk production. Rest assured though, you have very little to worry about rBGH, especially if you live in Europe or Canada because in those countries it has been banned. In America, we are still exposed to this apparently innocuous hormone thanks to the hard work of one of the synthetic rBGH producers, Monsanto, and their lobbying efforts.
In an unrelated story, the Journal of The American Academy of Dermatology determined in one of many milk/acne studies that they “found a positive association between intake of skim milk and acne. This finding suggests that skim milk contains hormonal constituents, or factors that influence endogenous hormones, in sufficient quantities to have biological effects in consumers.”
Additionally, recent research suggests a link between rBGH increasing insulin like growth factor (ILGF-1) which may increase breast and prostate cancer.
To be fair, these studies are not 100% conclusive. No one can say that milk in any way causes cancer. Therefore, I will call it a hunch and switch to almond milk.
Myth: Milk is a health food providing essential vitamins and minerals.
I agree with the National Dairy Council that “a single glass of milk delivers a package of nine essential nutrients important for good health, including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins D, A and B12, riboflavin and niacin (niacin equivalents).”
But I disagree that milk is a health food. Surrounding these nine nutrients is a dirty blood-based liquid containing hormones, antibiotics, saturated fats and somatic or pus cells. Somatic cells are primarily white blood cells or pus and may contain dead bacteria as well as epithelial cells from inside the cow.
The USDA allows a legal maximum of 750,000 somatic cells per milliliter of milk for Grade A milk. Some level of somatic cell will always be present, however with dairy cows be injected with rBGH to produce more milk, the risk of mastitis goes up, which is why the somatic cell counts in our milk have risen.
Antibiotic use in livestock is creating problems for our bodies as well. 80% of the antibiotics in the U.S. are used on livestock, primarily as a prophylactic against infections such as mastitis from over burdened dairy cows and to help them grow faster. These antibiotics end up in our meat and our milk and reducing their overall effectiveness.
Cow’s milk would be harder to remove from our diet if there weren’t such wonderful alternatives. Many of the nut milks such as almond and hemp have equivalent levels of the same nutrients found in milk and more. Hemp milk, for example, is has essential Omega 3 fatty acids necessary for brain health.
Dr. O’s recommendations:
In order to build strong bones and healthy teeth, both in adolescents and in our senior population, there are three things that are extremely beneficial.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is a hormone produced in the liver and kidneys after being exposed to sun. It pulls bone building nutrients from the food we eat and helps put those nutrients in the bone. Healthy exposure to the sun without burning is always the best way to achieve optimal vitamin D levels. Secondarily, foods and supplements containing vitamin D will help you achieve optimal vitamin D levels.
- Get plenty of healthy exercise. P90x and Insanity may work for some people but the majority of the population should look for a sustainable exercise that you enjoy and can do every day. The best exercise will combine both cardiovascular activities such as walking, jogging, and biking with resistance exercises that build muscle. The could be as simple as light weight lifting or walking with a weight vest.
- Increase consumption of plant-based nutrient packed foods while decrease the processed carbohydrates. Nutrient-dense bone building foods include kale, brocolli, brussel sprouts, collard greens, spinach and a host of other delicious veggies. Although protein is essential and should be included at each meal, plant based proteins are often superior to animal-based protein especially for people with lower bone mineral density. High levels of animal-based proteins can create acidic conditions that pull alkalinizing nutrients such as calcium from your bones. Acids in sodas can also leach calcium from bones so I would recommend leaving those out of your nutritional program as well.