It’s September, and all across the country children and teachers are filling classrooms, playgrounds, and school cafeterias. Some are in new buildings, some old. Some have new textbooks, some old. Some are studying subjects I never heard of in elementary school, like computers, and some are studying materials pretty much like what I studied back in the ’60s and ’70s. One subject that could be changing, and in my opinion, should be changing, much more rapidly is the subject of nutrition. I say this because of my horror in seeing that one of the greatest myths ever foisted on the American public is still being disseminated in our classrooms despite mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary. This is the myth that milk builds strong bones.
I grew up with the four food groups: meat, fruits and vegetables, grains, and milk. I accepted these food groups as nearly gospel and ate accordingly. Then in the ’90s I read an article in a magazine called Science News that rocked my world. This article not only stated that milk consumption is associated with an increased risk of hip fracture in elderly people, but it showed a chart of countries all over the world, correlating milk consumption with hip fracture rates. To my amazement, without exception the countries with the highest milk consumption had the highest rates of hip fractures, and the countries with the lowest rates of milk consumption had the lowest rates of hip fractures. More recently, Amy Lanou PhD, nutritional director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. stated, “The countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis are the ones where people drink the most milk and have the most calcium in their diets.”
Studies by scientists all over the world support these statements. The famous Harvard Nurses’ Health Study followed 77,761 women aged 34 through 59 for 12 years. This study found that the women who drank three glasses of milk daily had double the number of fractures compared to women who rarely drank milk. The authors of the study, Feskanich, Willet, Stampfer, and Colditz wrote, “These data do not support the hypothesis that higher consumption of milk or other food sources of calcium by adult women protect against hip or forearm fractures.” Back in 1994 the American Journal of Epidemiology published a report by Cumming and Klineberg containing this summation: “Consumption of dairy products, particularly at age 20 years, was associated with an increased rate of hip fracture in old age.”
While it is true that high milk consumption initially results in increased bone mineral density, that is a short-term gain offset by long-term increases in osteoporosis risk. Author Russell Eaton states, “Dairy milk does increase bone density, but this comes at a terrible price. The latest research is showing that far from protecting bones, milk actually increases the risk of osteoporosis by eroding bone-making cells.” The scientific explanation is too lengthy to go into here, but it involves acidification of the blood and the effect of excess calcium from milk on the activity of osteoblasts and osteoclasts.
Even aside from scientific evidence, simple logic speaks clearly. Is there any other animal on Earth that drinks milk after infancy? No. Yet we still tell out school children every day that unless human beings drink cow’s milk every day of their lives, their bones will fall apart. It makes me shudder with frustration.
It is clearly time to replace propaganda from the food industry with solid science in our classrooms. Our most recent food pyramid, the one saying we should all be consuming 6 to 11 servings of grain per day, as well as showing cow’s milk as a healthy part of the human diet, was based on intensive lobbying by the food industry rather than on solid science. Most of us are aware that anyone eating 11 pieces of bread a day, plus all of the other foods shown on the food pyramid, is going to be obese, but the food industry has plenty of political clout and clearly uses this influence to its advantage.
Now, before the Dairy Farmers of Washington get all upset with me, I will add one bit of good news for dairy lovers. There are studies showing that fermented milk products, such as sour cream, yogurt, and kefir, do not cause the blood acidification that is associated with the leaching of calcium from our bones. TCBY, here I come.
Nutritional science is complicated. I’m not a scientist, I’m just a health fanatic who reads a lot. But I’m hoping that many reading this will be spurred to do their own research and educate their families on the truth when it comes to dairy milk. Maybe eventually, as was the case with the lung cancer/cigarette connection, this knowledge will become main stream. Our children’s health depends on it.
Beverly Hoback lives in Arlington and teaches music, health, and science in the Lakewood School District.