Making the Decision to Ditch Dairy
Q: Your article "Good Cholesterol, Bad Cholesterol", recommends reducing saturated fats like high-fat meats and dairy. My personal trainer said that I should eliminate dairy completely. But why should it be reduced or omitted when nutrition guidelines call for two to three servings of dairy each day?
A: Eating less saturated fat, found in meat and regular dairy products like whole milk and cheese, can help control high cholesterol. Low- or no-fat dairy products are better sources of calcium and protein.
But some nutrition experts are starting to question the benefits of dairy, especially following the USDA recommendation to eat as much as three servings every single day. New York University professor Marion Nestle writes extensively in Food Politics how lobbyists have influenced the government’s nutritional guidelines. It’s the profit motive, as Nestle explains in her book “Food lobbyists, therefore, are people who ask government officials to make rules or laws that will benefit their clients’ companies, whether or not they benefit anyone else.” So, if a particular type of food gets the governments’ stamp of approval, then it's likely that sales will increase. The dairy industry spends millions promoting consumption, such as in the “Got Milk” ad campaign. Most recently there have been charges that the dairy industry is trying to boost sales by claiming that eating more dairy helps with weight control.
So is something wrong with dairy?
Some say it’s a no-brainer: Only babies of various animal species drink milk, suggesting that adults of the species don’t really need it. When it comes to humans, up to two-thirds of the world’s population—including around 50 percent to 90 percent of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans and Asian-Americans—are lactose-intolerant, according to the Surgeon General’s 2004 report on Bone Health and Osteoporosis, meaning that they lack or are low in the enzyme lactase, which digests milk. So they are unable to consume much milk-based food.
Plus, critics say, cow’s milk is designed for, well, calves. And because of the different biochemical composition between human and cow’s milk, babies who aren’t breastfed are given formula instead of regular cow’s milk.
Although the calcium and protein in milk are important nutrients, proof that dairy sources of calcium are required for strong bones is weak. Populations that eat little or no dairy do not have higher rates of osteoporosis.
Some studies suggest a significantly increased risk of some cancers from eating three or more servings a day of dairy, especially prostate cancer in men. This cancer link is inconclusive, however, and more research needs to be done.
Dr. Walter Willett, a Harvard University nutrition researcher and author of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy and Eat, Drink and Weigh Less, believes that dairy products are not essential, and recommends low-fat dairy or supplements as sources of calcium. (If you do take a multivitamin or calcium supplement, make sure that it also contains D.)
When it comes to bone health, calcium and vitamin D aren’t the only important nutrients that play a role: Vitamin K, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, zinc and other trace minerals all help form bone. If you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, you’ll easily meet your quota of these nutrients.
So do you have to give up pizza, grilled-cheese sandwiches, ice cream, yogurt and chocolate milk? Probably not. Most populations, even if they don’t drink milk, have developed fermented milk foods such as yogurts and cheeses, so it’s not like dairy is a completely new food source. If you have problems digesting milk products—and this can worsen with age—you can find substitutes or use Lactaid.
If you are a big milk drinker and have dairy at every meal, keep an eye out on the latest research findings to stay informed. You may want to cut down. Choosing lower-fat options and holding off on the extra cheese is a smart idea when it comes to weight and cholesterol control.
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