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Health Feature


Got (Problems with) Milk?

by Kristine Kieswer 

Ads on TV or in magazines may have you convinced that all of the answers to bone health can be found inside a milk jug. Drink it by the gallon (chocolate flavored, too) and eat plenty of dairy-based products like yogurt, cottage cheese, and smoothies, and your bones will stay sturdy for life, right? Well, not quite.

The dairy industry has done a stellar job of playing up the fact that milk contains calcium. While this is an essential nutrient for building strong bones, it is just one player in the complex process of bone building. Unlike a fingernail, bones are living tissues with their own nerves and blood vessels; they are the factories where blood cells are made, and are constantly breaking down and rebuilding. To be of optimal value, calcium must be delivered in the right package, and many researchers and physicians believe cow’s milk is far from ideal.

“I’ve got a stomach ache, mom.”

The first clue that dairy may have a downside is often immediate. Dairy products cause stomach pain for many people, and pain is a signal that something is amiss. In fact, what’s come to be known as “lactose intolerance” is quite common among many populations in the United States. Approximately 95 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, and 70 percent of African Americans suffer gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, and painful gas after consuming dairy because they do not have the enzymes necessary to digest the milk sugar lactose. Actually, this should be no cause for concern: By nature, mammals are programmed to be weaned from their mothers, cease with milk drinking, and begin to add a variety of other foods to the diet. So there is really no need for milk-digesting enzymes after infancy. To meet calcium needs, foods such as beans and green vegetables are superb suppliers.

The Best Recipe for Strong Bones

You’ll never read about this in a “milk mustache” ad, but clinical research has shown that dairy products are no solution to osteoporosis. The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which followed more than 75,000 women for 12 years, showed no protective effect of increased milk consumption on fracture risk. In fact, increased intake of calcium from dairy products was associated with a higher fracture risk. Other large studies have come to the same conclusion.

You can decrease your risk of osteoporosis by reducing salty foods, meats, dairy products, and caffeinated beverages; increasing intake of fruits and vegetables; exercising; and getting calcium from plant foods and calcium-fortified products such as breakfast cereals and juices. Smoking is also bad news for bones.

African American women should also be aware that, overall, they are at less risk for osteoporosis than Caucasian and Asian women. Still, from the time youngsters enter first grade, to the time they graduate high school, they are inundated with U.S. federal food policies that require schools to serve milk. This has been such a hot button issue in recent years that physicians have sued the government over food guidelines that are believed to be racially biased. In short, the well-known Food Guide Pyramid promotes daily consumption of cow’s milk, meat, and other dairy products for all Americans, despite the fact that African Americans go onto to have more diet-related chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension than other groups.

Healthy Calcium Sources

Incorporate these foods in your diet and you’ll not only boost calcium, you’ll get a significant dose of vitamins and antioxidants known to prevent a number of diseases.

CALCIUM IN FOODS 

(content in milligrams)

Grains

Brown rice (1 cup, cooked)

20

Corn tortilla

42

English muffin

92

Pancake mix (1/4 cup; 3 pancakes; Aunt Jemima Complete)

140

Pita bread (1 piece)

18

Wheat bread (1 slice)

18

Wheat flour, all-purpose (1 cup)

22

Wheat flour, Pillsbury’s Best  (1 cup)

238

Whole wheat flour (1 cup)

40

Fruits

Apple (1 medium)

10

Banana (1 medium)

7

Dried figs (10 figs; 187 grams)

269

Naval orange (1 medium)

56

Orange juice, calcium-fortified (8 oz.)

300*

Pear (1 medium)

19

Raisins (2/3 cup)

53

Vegetables

Broccoli (1 cup, boiled, frozen)

94

Brussels sprouts (1 cup, boiled, 8 sprouts)

56

Butternut squash (1 cup, boiled)

84

Carrots (2 medium, raw)

38

Cauliflower (1 cup, boiled)

34

Celery (1 cup, boiled)

64

Collards (1 cup, boiled, frozen)

348

Kale (1 cup, boiled)

94

Onions (1 cup, boiled)

46

Potato (1 medium, baked)

20

Romaine lettuce (1 cup)

20

Sweet potato (1 cup, boiled)

70

Legumes

Black turtle beans (1 cup, boiled)

103

Chick peas (1 cup, canned)

78

Great Northern beans (1 cup, boiled)

121

Green beans (1 cup, boiled)

58

Green peas (1 cup, boiled)

44

Kidney beans (1 cup, boiled)

50

Lentils (1 cup, boiled)

37

Lima beans (1 cup, boiled)

32

Navy beans (1 cup, boiled)

128

Pinto beans (1 cup, boiled)

82

Soybeans (1 cup, boiled)

175

Soymilk (1 cup, enriched)

300*

Tofu (1/2 cup, raw, firm)

258

Vegetarian baked beans (1 cup)

128

Wax beans (1 cup, canned)

174

White beans (1 cup, boiled)

161

Source:

J.A.T. Pennington, Bowes and Church’s Food Values of Portions Commonly Used. (New York: Harper and Row, 1989.)

* package information

 

Special Concerns

The frequent use of dairy products in the United States has many physicians concerned serious health risks. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that cow’s milk given to children under one may cause iron deficiency. Colic is an additional concern. We now know that breastfeeding mothers can have colicky babies if the mothers are consuming cow’s milk. Food allergies also appear to be a common result of milk consumption. One study has linked cow’s milk consumption to chronic constipation in children.

Diabetes

Insulin-dependent (type 1) diabetes is linked to consumption of dairy products. Epidemiological studies of various countries show a strong correlation between the use of dairy products and the incidence of insulin-dependent diabetes. Researchers in 1992 found that a specific dairy protein sparks an autoimmune reaction, which is thought to destroy the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Cancer

Breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers have also been linked to consumption of dairy products, presumably related, at least in part, to increases in a compound called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I). A recent study showed that men who had the highest levels of IGF-I had more than four times the risk of prostate cancer compared with those who had the lowest levels.

Cardiovascular Disease

Dairy products—including cheese, ice cream, milk, butter, and yogurt—contribute significant amounts of cholesterol and fat to the diet. Diets high in fat and saturated fat can increase the risk of several chronic diseases including heart disease. A low-fat vegetarian diet that eliminates dairy products, in combination with exercise, smoking cessation, and stress management, can not only prevent heart disease, but may also reverse it.

Common Sense Conclusions

Wading through nutritional science can seem daunting, and conflicting news reports only add to the confusion. But it’s an exciting time in medical history. We’ve now been able to look to other continents, study wildly varying eating styles, and follow immigrating populations to see how and why their health is subsequently affected. Out of all the research, the emerging lessons are probably similar to what your mother has been saying for years: Eat more fruits and vegetables and stay away from sodas, sweets, and French fries. So let common sense be your guide. If milk makes you queasy, listen to your body. Enjoy low-fat sources of calcium by eating more beans and green vegetables. Or start your day with a glass of calcium-fortified juice or soymilk. And don’t be afraid to tune out advertisements made to disguise the downside of products.

Here’s to your health!