Some months back, former president Bill Clinton made the news with his progress in reversing his heart disease with a vegan diet. He had cut out all red meat, chicken, and dairy, and changed to a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans and legumes. He lost 24 pounds and greatly improved his cardiovascular profile.
There is little data to support any real health benefits from drinking cows’ milk, despite the white mustaches on the upper lips of celebrities. A University of Alabama study1 showed milk did not prevent osteoporosis. A study from Finland2 showed that, for infants, drinking milk promotes the production of antibodies against the cow’s insulin and then also attack the infant’s own beta pancreatic cells, predisposing to juvenile diabetes.
Cheese is one source of calcium in the diet and you need about 1000 mg Ca/day, the amount in four glasses of milk; 1 glass of milk = 1 cup of yogurt = 1 oz. of hard cheese = 1.5 cups cottage cheese = 4 oz. of fish = 1- 600 mg calcium carbonate pill. Cheese is also high in fat and an excess of dairy and other animal protein has its own serious health implications,3 so its intake should not be excessive. Good vegetable sources of calcium would include greens, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. From Harvard’s Physicians’ Health Study of almost 21,000 men, a high calcium intake (> 2,000 mg/day) was associated with increased risk of advanced prostate cancer and those who got their calcium from more than four glasses of milk daily had a 32% increase in risk than did those drinking less;4 there is not enough added vitamin D in the milk to offset the loss of vitamin D used up by the calcium. Vitamin D has antitumor properties and a low level of vitamin D is associated with cancer.5
While there are better dietary sources of calcium, drinking milk in moderation is not likely to cause harm. However, milk that is pasteurized, homogenized, and filled with chemicals is much more difficult to digest properly, even by those with strong digestion.
According to Chinese medicine, quality milk (presumably of the cleanest natural and uncontaminated origin) builds qi vitality, the blood, and the yin, which includes the fluids and tissue of the body, especially benefitting thin and weak people with a tendency toward dryness. Deficient yin is associated with hypoglycemia, diabetes, tuberculosis, and anxiety. Spices added to yogurt can greatly improve digestion and provide their own health benefits. High-fat proteins like yogurt combine well with green and non-starchy vegetables and with acidic fruits like almonds, strawberries, citrus fruits, and sour apples.
Yogurt presents a much more positive total benefit profile than fresh milk does, including possibly making us more sexy and better parents. Researchers at MIT investigated details on yogurt’s ability to stave off age-related weight gain with groups of mice fed a small portion of yogurt daily.7 Compared to controls, treated mice were slimmer, produced shinier coats, males had larger testicles, mated faster, and produced more offspring; female mice had even shinier coats than the males and were better mothers to their larger litters. (Can you picture the “Got milk?” version of this ad campaign?) The researchers speculated that the effects were due to the probiotics – living microorganisms from live-culture yogurt.
A recent meta-analysis of studies involving the benefits of probiotics – living microorganisms from live-culture yogurt – showed that yogurt reduced the risk of diarrhea caused by taking a course of antibiotics by 42%.6 The mechanism for this rests with the balance between beneficial and detrimental bacteria in the gut. Clostridia and other bad organisms are held in check by good bacteria. An antibiotic that kills off the good organisms allows the Clostridia to overgrow and cause diarrhea.
Beneficial probiotic organisms may include species of Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, Bifidobacterium, and others. These good bacteria break down soluble fiber to form chemicals such as short chain fatty acids that are absorbed into your bloodstream and travel to your liver where they block the liver from making cholesterol and help to prevent heart attacks. These short chain fatty acids also reduce inflammation, so they help to control the bloody diarrhea and ulcers caused by Crohn’s disease. They also reduce the inflammation, swelling and pain of arthritis, diabetes, psoriasis, and improve immunity. A twelve-year study from Milan, Italy, concluded that high yogurt intake was significantly associated with decreased colorectal cancer risk.8
Prebiotics are found in certain foods that are not completely absorbed in your upper intestinal tract, pass to your colon, and form the food that encourages growth of good bacteria. Soluble fiber is the component of these foods most likely to encourage the growth of good bacteria. Good sources of soluble fiber are whole grains, beans, seeds, vegetables and nuts.
The lactobacilli in live yogurt cultures cannot colonize your gut so you need a bit of yogurt every day to maintain their beneficial presence. Lactose-intolerant people and those lacking the enzyme rennin can often tolerate yogurt because of the partial breakdown of lactose to lactic acid caused by bacterial digestion. This also improves the listed carbohydrate profile since the sugars are listed for the raw product and would be lower after their conversion to lactic acid.
Fermented food products are often recommended for their high vitamin B12 content and for the establishment and maintenance of a healthy gut flora. Fermented foods have an ancient history across many cultures as well as a current devoted following of believers in the benefits for many aspects of health. Food products available in supermarkets or health food stores would include naturally-fermented pickles, sauerkraut (cabbage), kimchi (Korean cabbage), kombucha (tea fermented with yeast and bacteria), natto (Japanese fermented soy), tempeh (Indonesian fermented soy), kefir (Central Asian fermented milk with grain), paneer (Indian cheese), and many others that could be bought or made at home.
So, while cows’ milk has been heavily marketed and is widely consumed, maybe largely out of habit, there are fewer benefits to its consumption than is generally believed. Though modest amounts are relatively benign, it is hardly the perfect food, and excessive consumption can be harmful because of high calcium and protein intake and the trace hormones and antibiotics which the dairy cow may have been given. A better case can be made for getting your dairy as a daily ration of live-culture, low-fat, plain yogurt enhanced with fresh berries and a dab of honey.
1 RL Weinsier, CL Krumdieck. Dairy Foods and Bone Health: Examination of the Evidence. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, Vol 72, Iss 3, pp 681-689.
2 J Paronen, M Knip, et al, Effect of Cow’s Milk Exposure and Maternal Type 1 Diabetes on Cellular and Humoral Immunization to dietary Insulin in Infants at Genetic Risk for Type 1 Diabetes. Diabetes, 2000, Vol 49, Iss 10, 1657-65.
3 Campbell, Colin T. The China Study. Ben Bella Books, 2004 (paperback 2011), ISBN-13: 9781932100662, and the DVD documentary of the study: Forks Over Knives (2011), available on Hulu and Netflix.
4 Harvard Men’s Health Watch, October, 2007.
5 WebMD, May 26, 2012: http://www.webmd.com/cancer/news/20111004/low-vitamin-d-levels-linked-to-advanced-cancers
6 SJ Newberry, J Am Med Assoc, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/21/2012.
8 V Pala, S Sieri, et al., Yogurt Consumption and risk of Colorectal Cancer in the Italian European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Cohort. Int J Cancer, 2011 (Dec 1) 129(11):2712-19.