Milk and Other Dairy Products

Posted in Additional Information

Reprinted in full with permission from Vegetarian Times

Dr. Atwood, what's so bad about milk and other dairy products?

The biggest problem I have seen in my pediatric practice is the widespread allergic reaction of children to milk proteins. There are more than 25 proteins in milk that can lead to allergies, and worldwide estimates suggest that two-thirds of the population has trouble digesting milk because of lactose intolerance. Approximately seven out of 10 patients I see have allergies, with symptoms ranging from recurrent ear infections and eczema to asthma and various upper respiratory infections, like bronchitis and sinusitis. In most cases, children improve when they are taken off dairy for approximately three weeks, which suggests to me a definite relationship between dairy consumption and these allergies.

My second concern is with saturated fat, which is one of the primary contributors to heart disease. Saturated fat increases cholesterol production in the liver. This leads to the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries, which in turn raises one's risk of heart attack or stroke. Dairy products (including whole milk, butter, ice cream and cheese) are the most immediate source of saturated fat for children. And thanks to a high consumption of dairy products, we now have 40 million children with elevated cholesterol levels in the United States. (Skim milk is certainly better in this regard since it has essentially no saturated fat; however it still contains dairy proteins which can cause allergies.)

We know that, statistically, one out of two children will die from heart disease as adults. According to the 25-year Bogalusa Heart Study done by Louisiana State University in New Orleans, fatty deposits were found in children as early as age 3. And by age 12, 70% of these children were found to have these potentially deadly deposits.

My third concern is about casein, the primary dairy protein found in all dairy products. You may not see it on the label, but if you are eating dairy, you're consuming casein. (Check the labels on your soy-based dairy substitutes, like soy cheeses. Unless they're labeled dairy-free or vegan, these items may also contain casein.) There is new evidence that casein is a carcinogen. Studies published by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Showed a direct relationship between the casein in the food of laboratory mice and liver cancer. Mice fed with greater levels of casein had a higher incidence of liver tumors than those fed food with less casein. While it's too soon to draw any concrete conclusions regarding casein-related liver cancer in people, we suspect that further research could make this connection.

Lastly, dairy products are generally laced with antibiotics. These drugs are fed to farm animals to fight the diseases that are endemic to their tightly confined living conditions. The antibiotics are then passed to us when we consume milk and meat products. This routine exposure to antibiotics contributes first to the mutation of bacteria and then to the breeding of superstrains of bacteria that are immune to even the strongest antibiotics-hospitals are already seeing staph bacteria that don't respond to antibiotics. On July 9, 1998, the Committee on Drug Use in Food Animals, a division of the National Research Council, released a landmark report that finally acknowledged that agricultural use of antibiotics poses a public health risk.

Should we be concerned about recombinant bovine growth hormone?

Known as rBGH, this is a genetically engineered hormone that some dairy farmers inject into cows to increase milk production. It causes udder infections in cows (known as mastitis), which necessitate increased use of antibiotics, and there is also evidence that rBGH promotes tumor growth in laboratory animals. In addition, rBGH significantly stimulates a cow's production of another hormone that's secreted in milk, insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has been linked with breast cancer. Our bodies already manufacture IGF-1; when we consume dairy products that contain IGF-1, it appears that we're overdosing ourselves with a hormone that prompts cells in our body to multiply-possibly even including cancer cells.

Last May, Susan Hankinson, Sc.D., published a sobering report in the Lancet about the relationship between IGF-1 levels and breast cancer. Dr. Hankinson had blood samples from thousands of woman enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study in 1989-90. Tests showed that those women with high IGF-1 levels in their blood had up to five times the risk of developing breast cancer than those with low IGF-levels.

In 1995, the European Union imposed a seven-year ban on using these growth hormones in their dairy cows. Sellers of rBGH claim the cancer-promoting agents in milk from rBGH-treated cows are destroyed in pasteurization and digestion before they can do harm. But the European experts were unimpressed by the scientific data purporting to show that rBGH is safe. Unfortunately, in the United States, farmers are permitted to use rBGH. And because the dairy industry fears that consumers will not buy milk from rBGH-treated cows, it's illegal to label milk rBGH-free, so you have no way to know if you're drinking it or not.

Are cheese, yogurt and ice cream as harmful as milk?

They carry the same health risks, but magnified. For instance, a quart of ice cream contains the allergenic proteins, fat, growth hormones and antibiotics equal to three gallons of milk.proteins, fat, growth hormones and antibiotics equal to three gallons of milk.

What about organic dairy products?

They have the same fat, cholesterol, casein and other allergenic proteins. However, organic milk should not contain the high levels of antibiotics found in most non-organic milk. I hope that organic dairies wouldn't use rBGH either.

Are dairy products that come from sheep or goats any better?

You're not doing yourself any favors by switching to goat's milk. It contains the same harmful substances.

Can small amounts of dairy hurt us?

Less is better. I have no objection to my patients putting a little skim milk on dry cereal once a day, nor would I object to one frozen yogurt a week. I don't feel that amount of dairy is harmful. But what is often un-addressed is our addiction to the taste of fat. As children, we do need a greater amount of fat in our diet to ensure proper development, especially before the age of 2. But as adults, we need only 15 to 20% of calories from fats, which are easily acquired through a plant-based diet.

By avoiding dairy, don't people miss out on calcium and vitamin D?

They can easily be obtained by eating a diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, soy products, nuts and legumes. Leafy greens, like kale and broccoli, not only contain adequate amounts of calcium, but they supply it in a form that is easier for the body to absorb and use. Many meat and dairy substitutes also provide all the nutrients contained in dairy without the saturated fat and dangerous growth hormones and casein.

As for vitamin D, the body produces enough vitamin D just by being in the sunlight for 20 minutes, three times a week. People living in the northern part of the hemisphere where sunlight is less available can obtain vitamin D though supplements.

There seems to be a lot of data on both sides of the dairy debate. How can we separate truth from opinion?

The dairy industry, by supplying teaching aids and nutritional information to schools, begins its pro-dairy propaganda while children are too young to question what they're learning. As a result of this aggressive campaign, we have all grown up believing we need dairy products for balanced nutrition and to avoid diseases like osteoporosis later in life. Few people think to ask why we drink the milk of another species when no other mammal does so.

Research from very reliable sources makes two things absolutely certain: Dairy products can cause allergies, and they usually contain high amounts of fat. That alone is reason to use them less or not at all. And while skim milk and low-fat or fat-free yogurt may not be as harmful, they're still chock-full of the allergenic proteins and antibiotics.

How can we justify publishing information like this when so many of our own recipes contain dairy products? [ed. Note: this refers to recipes in Vegetarian Times]

Milk consumption is a matter of personal choice. Many vegetarians consume dairy products...although I've found that more and more people are deciding not to. Supermarkets and natural food stores now carry a variety of milk substitutes made from almonds, soy and rice. It's never been easier to cut back on milk and dairy products. Perhaps people just need to be reminded of that. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so.

Dr. Charles Atwood has been a board certified pediatrician since 1964. He worked with the late Benjamin Spock on the final edition of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care (Pocket Books, 1998) and is the author of Dr. Atwood's Low-Fat Prescription for Kids (Viking, 1995). Later this fall Hohm Press will release his latest book, The Vegetarian Doctor Speaks Out.

Along with colleagues like Neal Barnard, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D. And John McDougall, M.D., he petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to state in its guidelines that a vegetarian diet is healthful. A vegetarian himself since 1988, Atwood shuns all dairy products.

This interview was conducted by Vegetarian Times Senior health editor Suzanne Gerber.


The content on this website is not to be taken as medical advice. We have gathered information here so that you can make an informed decision in partnership with your medical practitioner.

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Lisa S. Lewis, Ph.D.

Lisa S. Lewis, Ph.D. Lisa S. Lewis, Ph.D. is the author of Special Diets For Special Kids I & II, the foremost books on gluten and casein-free diets for children with disabilities.

Karyn Seroussi

Karyn Seroussi Karyn Seroussi is the author of Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and PDD, the story of her son's autism recovery through dietary and other biomedical interventions.

Helping since 1995

Together Lewis and Seroussi created the Autism Network for Dietary Intervention (ANDI.) Since 1995, ANDI has been helping and supporting parents using dietary and biomedical interventions for autism spectrum disorders. Last year, Lisa and Karyn again joined forces and put the sum of their knowledge in a new book, The Encyclopedia of Dietary Interventions. They continue to write and speak on the topic of dietary intervention, and to support other parents around the world.