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The Milky Way: Do We Need to Drink Milk?

Got milk? New research suggests you may not need to down several glasses a day–or at all. 

Got Milk? We all know that one, don’t we? It makes us believe in the powers of milk. The dairy industry has been telling us that drinking milk will make us lose weight. However, obesity is on the rise and many believe that dairy actually has a lot to do with it. The FDA has now told U.S. dairy producers to stop pitching the idea that drinking more milk spurs weight loss.

“Milk and cheese are more likely to pack on pounds than help people slim down,” said Dan Kinburn, general counsel for the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. “This case calls into question other advertising claims made by the industry, especially the notion that milk builds strong bones. Evidence shows it does nothing of the kind.”

But isn’t dairy good for us?

Many do believe dairy is good for us; it is from “mother” after all. The problem is that most of us (okay, all of us) don’t have a cow as a mother. A cow’s milk doesn’t have the same composition as breast milk. Its content of fat, protein, and carbohydrates varies from human milk, which is what nature designed for us. The protein in human milk is lower and the carbohydrates are higher than in cow’s milk. The quality of the fat in cow’s milk is a problem for us as well. Today’s commercial cows are fed on a grain diet instead of grass, and the quality of our milk is based on what cows eat.

Recent articles have praised the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content—a fatty acid of the good fat of Omega-6—in the milk from grass-fed cows. In general, we get too much of the Omega-6 fatty acids, making us gain weight and develop other fat-related health issues. However, the CLA in cow’s milk is only found in whole milk (mostly from grass fed cows). But you can get the oh-so good for you CLA from other sources, in case milk isn’t your favorite choice. Besides, it has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and cancers, such as breast and prostate.

What did your cow have for breakfast today?

The Consumer Union sampled milk from different processing plants and, from the twenty-five brands they tested, they found that only 12 percent were free of some defect in taste variance. Over one third of the milk contained flavors of the feed the cow had recently eaten. Bon appetit.

And what about the bacteria in cow’s milk? Milk from a healthy cow will always contain some bacteria, usually from fecal matter that has contaminated the udder, which is why we pasteurize. Still, government regulation states that milk is allowed up to 20,000 bacteria per each milliliter of milk. (There are five milliliters in a teaspoon, just for the record.) Milk is also “only” allowed to have ten organisms of coliform bacteria per milliliter. Yum yum.

But it is organic! That helps, because at least you’re not getting an extra load of pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Do remember, however, that the natural growth hormone present in a cow-mother’s milk is present in organic milk as well. This is still beyond what we need as grown-up people.

Lactose Intolerance
If you take a look around the world of mammals, we’re the only ones to ingest dairy after infancy. We’re actually not even supposed to be able to digest it as adults, since our lactase enzymes go down as we grow up. But since dairy is such a large part of our western diet, our bodies are forced to learn to digest it. If you take a look at the lactase deficiency in healthy adults, we see that quite a large part of the population in countries where dairy is not part of their heritage diet has a high intolerance, about 80 to 90 percent. In countries like Denmark (a country “living” on dairy) and America, intolerance is as low as 5 to 8 percent.

Signs of Intolerance
Gas and bloating are the most common complaints after consumption of dairy. But more severe symptoms such as diarrhea and chronic constipation, anemia, asthma, allergies, and acne can also surface as a result of dairy.

The Calcium Connection
Many believe that dairy is crucial for our bones. The funny thing is that dairy has actually been linked to bone loss. The majority of the world’s population consumes less calcium than we do in the Western diet, and they have strong bones and healthy teeth. Cow’s milk is rich in phosphorus, which prevents absorption of calcium. So milk may contain calcium, but if you can’t absorb it, what good does it do? Alternative calcium sources are your leafy greens, green vegetables, and legumes (beans, lentils, and peas).

Something else to consider if you’re concerned about getting enough calcium: be mindful of the things you eat that cause calcium depletion, such as coffee, too much protein, soda, sugar, and nightshade vegetables (tomato, potato, peppers, eggplant, and spinach). Eliminate some of these, add some exercise into your routine, and you should be good to go dairy-free if you so choose.

By Jeanette Bronée

Related Story: The Real Cost of Bottled Water

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