Dairy has been on our food guides and in our refrigerators for generations – but there is plenty of evidence that the white stuff’s prevalence in today’s’ diet comes down to some heavy marketing in the decades past, rather than any real benefits to health.
Contrary to overwhelming societal views, there is no evidence that dairy is good for your bones, or prevents osteoporosis. But the white stuff has been known to cause digestive problems and aggravate IBS, is linked to prostate cancer, heart disease, allergies and type I diabetes alongside other conditions, and is very high in saturated fats. In fact, back in 2000, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a petition with the FTC stating that ‘the Milk Mustache ads violate federal advertising guidelines for health-related product claims’.
So why do we think it’s so essential?
We know that dietary guidelines aren’t always right – as recently as the early 1990s, the recommended ‘food pyramid’ suggested 6-11 servings of bread or cereals a day, leading to the refined carbohydrate generation, and an obesity epidemic – hardly the effect they were going for.
There are even suggestions that food recommendations might not have our best interests at heart, with accusations of heavy lobbying to government by food industries, and food recommendations set by councils made up of dairy industry representatives. Though our most recent Canadian Food Guide recommendations have eliminated dairy altogether, it will take years for science to correct the notion in society that milk is essential or even good for your health.
The US Government has seen fit to promote the dairy industry since 1983, with the Dairy Production and Stabilization Act, a ‘co-ordinated program of promotion designed to strengthen the dairy industry’s position in the marketplace and to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets and uses for fluid milk and dairy products’.
We took a look at the science to see what the real effects of dairy are on your body – and folks, it ain’t pretty! Here are our top 5 reasons to ditch the dairy and get onto whole, nutritious plant foods:
The main argument of the dairy industry, and your grandmother’s favourite saying – ‘milk builds strong bones’, may not be true – multiple large studies now find no link between milk consumption and bone fracture rate (1,2) or bone integrity (3); in fact, this 2007 meta-analysis (4) combed through many large-size studies worldwide to discover the same thing.
Bone-strengthening calcium is abundant in the plant world, absorbed 30% better from kale than it is from dairy. Studies show that calcium strengthens bones up to an upper threshold of 600 milligrams a day, beyond which extra makes no difference. So, we should aim for this amount daily – easily attainable with daily vegetables, without the need for supplementation and dairy.
In fact, plant sources may be superior as they’re alkalizing – whereas milk is acidifying, creating a more acidic environment in the body. There is evidence that this can leach calcium from the bones, making dairy milk a risk factor for osteoporosis! This is demonstrated by the fact that incidence of osteoporosis correlates directly with animal protein intake – the greater the intake, the more common and severe the osteoporosis. World health statistics show it is most common in the US, Finland, Sweden and the UK – countries with the highest rates of dairy consumption.
As plant-based Doctor Michael Klaper puts it, the purpose of cows’ milk is to ‘turn a 65-pound calf into a 400-pound cow as quickly as possible’. It’s full of growth hormones at far higher concentrations than human milk – once we’re fully grown, those hormones serve to grow cancers and other health problems. There has been publicity recently about phytoestrogens in soy foods, but dairy contains estradiol, an animal estrogen about 10,000 times more potent than phytoestrogens.
Milk also contains synthetic hormones, given by farmers to speed calves’ growth, which can further affect our hormone function, as well as antibiotics, pesticides and other contaminants. These don’t easily leave the body and can build up to toxic levels and lead to cancer (5).
There’s been no shortage of research into the health drawbacks of saturated fats in recent years, with the American Heart Association’s recommendation to eat no more than 6% of calories from saturated fats. Since this is the amount of a typical vegan diet, consuming dairy brings you way over.
Dairy products are high in cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and other serious conditions. There is evidence that a low-fat, plant-based diet, eliminating dairy, can not only prevent but may also reverse heart disease when used alongside exercise, stress management and stopping smoking. (6, 7).
There is significant evidence that dairy can be a risk factor for cancer. This is due to the high levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which is a known cancer promoter (8, 9, 10). There is a strong documented connection between this factor and risk of prostate (11,12,13) and breast (14) cancers, particularly. In fact, one study showed that the men with the highest IGF-1 levels had 4 times the risk of prostate cancer (15).
Another risk factor for reproductive system cancers is the presence of estrogen metabolites. With milk and dairy contributing over 60% of the estrogen in the average human diet, this is quite alarming!
The milk sugar lactose may also contribute to ovarian cancer since it breaks down into galactose, a sugar that ovarian cells really don’t like. The Women’s Health Study in Iowa (16) found that more than 1 glass of milk a day increases the chance of ovarian cancer by a huge 73%.
Milk and diabetes
Worryingly, milk proteins have been linked in multiple studies to the development of type I (or insulin-dependent) diabetes. A Finnish study (17) demonstrated that drinking dairy in infancy increased the likelihood of contracting this disease, whilst a further study (18) noted a 30% reduction in the incidence of type-1 diabetes in children who had not been exposed to cows’ milk in their first 3 months.
And type 2 diabetes also has ties with the dairy industry, too – in an effort, based on their perceived nutritional benefits – to get kids to eat dairy, products loaded with sugar are being marketed as healthy. Chocolate milk and yogurts can reach a staggering 18 grams of sugar in a single serving, depending on the brand. Parents Magazine (19) found that kids are eating over 60 grams of added sugar a day, a standard breakfast of a Greek yogurt and a cup of chocolate milk contributing 24 grams of this. Health experts (20) recommend 25 grams overall sugar daily as the upper limit for good health.
Ditch the dairy!
In light of the evidence, we think there are better places to find your calcium – it is packed into green, leafy vegetables, legumes and fruit, alongside a whole host of other vital nutrients. With plenty of healthier options such as nut and soy milks now available, it’s never been easier to ditch the milk and cheese! But don’t just take our word for it – do your own research, check who wrote and funded that research, and make the right decisions for you and your family!
1 Milk doesn’t reduce fractures – Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health. 1997 Jun;87(6):992-7.
2 Feskanich D, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Feb;77(2):504-11.
3 Lanou AJ, Berkow SE, Barnard ND. Calcium, dairy products, and bone health in children and young adults: a reevaluation of the evidence. Pediatrics. 2005;115:736–743.
4 Bischoff-Ferrari HA, Dawson-Hughes B, Baron JA, et al. Calcium intake and hip fracture risk in men and women: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies and randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 86:1780–90.
5 Baars AJ, Bakker MI, Baumann RA, et al. Dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and nondioxin- like PCBs in foodstuffs: occurrence and dietary intake in the Netherlands. Toxicol Lett. 2004;151:51–61.
6 Szeto YT, Kwok TC, Benzie IF. Effects of a long-term vegetarian diet on biomarkers of antioxidants status and cardiovascular disease risk. Nutrition. 2004;20:863–866.
7 Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? Lancet. 1990;336:129–133.
8 Key TJ. Diet, insulin-like growth factor-1 and cancer risk. Proc Nutr Soc 2011:1-4.
9 Qin LQ, He K, Xu JY. Milk consumption and circulating insulin-like growth factor-I level: a systematic literature review. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2009;60:330-340.
10 Huncharek M, Muscat J, Kupelnick B. Colorectal cancer risk and dietary intake of calcium, vitamin D, and dairy products: a meta-analysis of 26,335 cases from 60 observational studies. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(1):47-69.
11 Qin L, Xu J, Wang P, Tong J, Hoshi K. Milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer in Western countries: evidence from cohort studies. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2007;16:467–476.
12 Chan JM, Stampfer MJ, Ma J, Gann PH, Gaziano JM, Giovannucci E. Dairy products, calcium, and prostate cancer risk in the Physicians’ Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;74:549-554.
13 Song Y, Chavarro JE, Cao Y, et al. Whole milk intake is associated with prostate cancer-specific mortality among U.S. male physicians. J Nutr. 2013;143:189-196.
14 Kroenke CH, Kwan ML, Sweeney C, Castillo A, Caan Bette J. High-and low-fat dairy intake, recurrence, and mortality after breast cancer diagnosis. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2013;105:616-623.
15 Chan JM, Stampfer MJ, Giovannucci E, et al. Plasma insulin-like growth factor-1 and prostate cancer risk: a prospective study. Science. 1998;279:563–565.
16 Kushi LH, Mink PJ, Folsom AR, et al. Prospective study of diet and ovarian cancer. Am J Epidemiol. 1999;149:21–31.
17 Saukkonen T, Virtanen SM, Karppinen M, et al. Significance of cow’s milk protein antibodies as risk factor for childhood IDDM: interaction with dietary cow’s milk intake and HLA-DQB1 genotype. Childhood Diabetes in Finland Study Group. Dibetologia. 1998;41:72–78.
18 Eidelman AI, Schanler RJ. Policy statement: breastfeeding and the use of human milk. From the American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatrics. 2012;129:827–841.
21 Jarvinen KM, Makinen-Kiljunen S, Suomalainen H. Cow’s milk challenge through human milk evoked immune responses in infants with cow’s milk allergy. J Pediatr. 1999;135:506–512.
22 Paronen J, Bjorksten B, Hattevig G, Akerblom HK, Vaarala O. Effect of maternal diet during lactation on development of bovine insulin-binding antibodies in children at risk for allergy. J Allergy