Milk - Who Needs It?

  • 1 Apr 2009
  • Reading time 9 mins
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In response to an article I wrote once entitled "Animal or Vegetable?" I received a letter from a dietitian the gist of which said "how dare you exclude such a major beneficial food group such as dairy produce when giving dietary advice to the general public?" Dairy produce, especially in the quantities the average person in Britain consumes, is a recent addition to our diets.

The Introduction of Dairy Produce

The promotion of milk, and meat for that matter, at the turn of the century, was primarily the result of the discovery of the value of protein. The industrial revolution had taken people away from a peasant diet and introduced malnutrition on a major scale. The working classes had become smaller and weaker - not good army material. The discovery of protein and its role in human growth led to the promotion of meat, eggs and dairy produce which are now available on an unprecedented scale. Milk, rich in calcium, was deemed essential for infants and children. Even today, many breast-feeding women believe they must drink milk in order to make breast milk. The ever-increasing epidemic of osteoporosis has led more people to reach for the bottle to prevent calcium loss from bone. If there ever was a wonder food milk would seem to be it. Yet a cold look at the scientific evidence paints a very different story. The consumption of dairy produce is more closely correlated with coronary disease than any other food group, including meat. Cows milk allergy is not only extremely common, especially among infants, it is also potentially dangerous, being associated with cot death and gastro-intestinal bleeding. If that wasn’t enough, a growing body of scientists now believe that dairy consumption is contributing to osteoporosis, not preventing it.

A Skeleton in the Cupboard

Osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become increasingly porous and fracture-prone is endemic in the Western world, particularly among post-menopausal women. The reason, it is thought, is that the hormone oestrogen, which ceases to be produced at the menopause, assists the absorption of dietary calcium. Consequently, numerous trials have tested the effects of giving oral oestrogen, or calcium, or both. Neither have succeeded in completely ‘curing’ the problem, although both have an effect. This suggests another cause, obvious when you know that many women from different cultures throughout the world have no increased incidence of osteoporosis after the menopause. Many cultural groups have no osteoporosis at all.

The Bantus, in Africa, for example have an average calcium intake of 400mg, well below the RDA, and virtually no osteoporosis. In contrast, Eskimos, who consume vast amounts of calcium, have an exceptionally high incidence of osteoporosis. Why the difference? What have countries with a high incidence of osteoporosis got in common? The answer is too much dietary protein. Protein-rich foods are acid forming. The body cannot tolerate substantial changes in the acid pH of blood and neutralises or ‘buffers’ this effect through two main alkaline agents - sodium and calcium. When body reserves of sodium are used up calcium is taken from the bone.

Therefore the more protein you eat the more calcium you need. The difference between the Bantus and the Eskimos is their protein consumption. The fact that high protein diets lead to calcium deficiency is nothing new. But what research is beginning to show is that if you eat a high protein diet no amount of calcium corrects the imbalance. In one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition subjects were given a moderately high protein diet (12g nitrogen) and a very high protein diet (36g nitrogen) plus 1,400mg of calcium. The overall loss of calcium was 37mg per day on the 12g nitrogen diet and 137mg per day on the 36g nitrogen diet. The authors concluded that "high calcium diets are unlikely to prevent probable bone loss induced by high protein diets."

In another study a protein intake of 95 grams (bacon and eggs for breakfast supplies 55 grams) there was an average calcium loss of 58mg per day, which means a loss of 2% of total skeletal calcium per year, or 20% each decade. A comparison of human milk with cows’ or goats’ milk shows three interesting things. Firstly, milk has three times as much protein as well as substantially more calcium. Secondly, cows’ milk has a higher phosphorus to calcium ratio. This is also relevant because in animals a relatively high intake of phosphorus to calcium induces osteoporosis. Calcium and phosphorus have a complicated relationship. Calcium and phosphorus are bound together in bone. When calcium is released into the blood phosphorus is also released, only to be excreted via the kidneys.

A high dietary phosphorus intake may render less ‘free’ calcium, available for buffering and over-acidic blood, hence effectively inducing calcium deficiency. Since the UK, which represents 20% of the EC population, consumes 40% of its dairy produce, drinking milk and eating dairy products in our current excessive quantities does not seem to be preventing osteoporosis. If excessive protein consumption does prove to be the critical factor in osteoporosis, increasing dairy products, a major source of protein in the average diet, may make the problem worse not better.

Milk and Cardiovascular Disease

Another surprising finding is that a high consumption of milk and dairy produce is more predictive of cardiovascular disease than a high consumption of meat, eggs or sugar. Initially one might expect that the high saturated fat content of milk would be to blame. However, both the intake of milk fats (including butter, cream etc.) and the consumption of milk proteins correlate with cardiovascular disease. In fact, if you exclude cheese and fermented milk products such as yoghurt, the consumption of milk proteins is more closely correlated with cardiovascular disease than milk fat.

So what is unique about milk proteins, compared to other proteins that may lead to diseases of the heart and arteries? According to Stephen Seely of the University of Manchester Medical School, the answer is hormones. Milk is a high source of oestrogen and progesterone, with cows’ milk probably being the highest since cows are artificially kept in a state ......

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