“Is Dairy Really Bad?”

When I entered the hockey locker room to get ready for our first practice of the season last night I was greeted by a teammate who wanted to know if dairy was really “that bad” for her. Knowing this player’s husband likes to read about nutrition and “experiment on himself” using various approaches he investigates, I suspected this was his latest dietary discovery. In my usual way I replied that dairy is not necessarily “really bad” for everyone, though I know there are many who believe it’s a dietary evil.

Turns out her husband is reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. According to Campbell dairy protein (along with all other animal protein) is at the root of many of our culture’s ills, particularly cancer and ironically, osteoporosis. It’s been a while since I began reading Campbell’s book (and quite frankly I never finished it) so I didn’t remember the details aside from a clear pro-vegan agenda in the book. I skimmed the osteoporosis section my teammate had just read in alarm, and was reminded of one of the things I didn’t like about the book. Campbell uses studies that support plant-based diets to back up his own theories related to animal protein.

I think it’s important to remember that a plant-based diet does not have to be vegan or any kind of vegetarian diet it just needs to include more plant foods like veggies, fruit, legumes, nuts, and grains (preferably whole grains) than animal foods. Campbell is absolutely right that there is a plethora of research to support this approach to eating for excellent health and disease prevention but when he extends that to say we must shun all animal protein he loses me (and many other nutrition professionals).

However, let me be clear on this, I’m no fan of the highly politicized nutrition guidelines that favor various big industries, including dairy. I don’t believe dairy foods are required for good health (bone or overall) and the various plant sources of dairy are loaded with other important nutrients and phytonutrients that offer huge rewards both at the time of consumption and as protection against future health issues. Knowing that Marion Nestle (author of Food Politics) is a fairly objective resource for food information I referred back to her book What to Eat to read her thoughts on the subjects of calcium and dairy foods.

Nestle also does not believe dairy foods are a requirement for good health or strong bones (and makes the point that cows don’t drink milk after calfhood yet manage to grow bones that support 800 pounds or more of weight in adulthood – by eating grass!). Part of the confusion regarding the role of calcium in bone health is that it needs to be appropriately balanced with several other key nutrients to assess individual needs with any certainty. There are also several lifestyle factors that significantly impact bone health such as physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption.

The fact that milk happens to provide potassium, vitamin D (fortified), magnesium and lactose that promote calcium retention is a good thing. Unfortunately it also contains protein and phosphorus that promote calcium excretion. Like Campbell, Nestle points out that cultures with high rates of osteoporosis do eat the most dairy but she also reminds us that people in these countries are less active, smoke more and drink an excessive amount of soft drinks and alcohol (not to mention the excessive amount of sodium in their diets – another factor that promotes calcium losses) so their disease rates may have little to do with any particular food or drink.

As for the overall “evils of dairy” I agree with Marion Nestle’s take on the dairy debates:

…the current state of the science is that if milk does increase health risks, these have to be small. I think the science also suggests that if milk does have health benefits, these too are small. Milk is just a food. There is nothing special about it. Cow’s milk is not necessary and it is not perfect (at least not for humans). But cow’s milk also is not a poison…. You do not have to drink milk to be healthy, but if you like drinking it you can do so and stay healthy.

-        Marion Nestle, What to Eat (Northpoint Press, 2006)

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