By Maneka Gandhi
The legacy of milk drinking has not come to us from Krishna or the Vedas – nowhere in any of sacred texts does anyone drink milk – but from the British. Rabid milk drinkers, they brought this culture into India, started the first dairy farms and promoted it widely. Then our own governments, filled with people who had aped the West for so long, carried on this advertising and gave it a religious connotation (it is not the holy cow but holy milk), filled it with virtues like calcium and protein, and promoted it as an essential food for children to have at least 3 times a day. But does milk deserve its halo as a food that “does a body good”.
Now, scientists are retracting their rubber stamps. In the world’s premier medical magazine, The New England Journal of Medicine in February 2020, scientists Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and his co-author, David Ludwig, MD, PhD, a professor of paediatrics and nutrition at Harvard, say the science behind those dietary recommendations is almost nonexistent, and eating dairy may cause harm to both our bodies and the planet. Willett is the best known scientist on dairy in the world.
According to them, the core reason why people drink milk – its supposed benefits of calcium – is based on flawed evidence. Does milk justify its majorly adverse impact on the environment? Willett says no.
Their study comes at the same time as another prestigious one: Elizabeth Jacobs, PhD, is a professor of epidemiology, biostatistics, and nutritional sciences, at the University of Arizona, College of Public Health in Tucson, recommends in Nutritional Reviews that milk be downgraded as a separate and essential food. She says it should be placed in a much lower category as one of many foods that could provide protein.
Milk drinking in America has fallen by 40% since 1975. But its production and consumption has risen by 9%. That is because people are eating more cheese and yogurt and it takes far more milk to make these products. India has the same pattern. Much less milk is being fed to children, but paneer and dahi and sweets made of milk are up.
According to the team led by Willett, the recommendations for milk as a major calcium source came from a few small studies on a few people, and were carried on for just a few weeks. Researchers measured how much calcium they ate and drank, and compared it to how much they were excreting. The idea was to find out how much calcium the body needs to keep it in balance.
In adults, the calcium balance should be net zero – i.e., the body should excrete the same amount as it ingests. Researchers of these small studies concluded that, for Americans, 741 milligrams of calcium a day was enough for balance.
But in countries where dairy was not a common food, like Peru for instance (and all of Asia and Africa before the British), the amount needed for balance was much less — around 200 milligrams. As far back as 1951, Harvard University nutritionist Mark Hegsted did a study to find out whether calcium was needed in such quantities by the body. He looked for a chronically calcium-deprived population and found one in the Central Penitentiary of Lima, Peru, where prisoners subsisted on a rice and beans diet and drank milk once a week. Hegsted monitored the calcium intake and compared it to the amount they excreted in their waste, to calculate how much calcium they retained. The average prisoner took in just 126 milligrams of calcium a day, but tests still showed normal levels of calcium in his body. Willett says the body simply absorbs what it needs for balance, taking more from whatever food is eaten to meet its needs whether from green leaves, fruit and vegetables or fish.
But what happens to the body when large amounts of dairy calcium are poured into it? Willet points to large population-based studies, that have followed how people eat for years (not weeks), and measures what happens to their health. All these studies consistently point out that populations that eat the most milk have the highest number of bone fractures (especially hip fractures), i.e., the weakest most fragile bones. Exactly the opposite of what parents want to achieve when they force their children to drink milk. The risk appears to be highest for men who drank a lot of milk in childhood. One huge study found that women who drank 2.5 or more glasses of milk a day had a higher risk of fractures than women who drank less than one glass a day.
What are the other claims that Willett has found that have no basis in fact?
That milk makes you lose weight.
That milk can help control blood pressure.
That dairy lowers the rates of cardiovascular disease: all research shows that dairy has no effect on cardiovascular disease rates.
Dairy consumption lowers bone fracture rates: goes against every study which actually suggests the opposite.
And there was no link between lifespan and eating dairy.
All in all, every research done to date shows that “milk is not essential for health,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
According to the data there is good evidence that kids who drink cow’s milk grow taller than those who don’t (I would contest that: this has to do with genetics as well – Maneka Gandhi). But there is no scientific reason that shows why or how milk accelerates growth. Willett gives a sound reason: cows are often pregnant when they’re milked, which increases hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Cows produce more of another hormone, called insulin-like growth factor, IGF, which increases milk production (and gives cancer). These hormones may also promote growth in people.
Does milk create strong bones in children? Children need calcium for bone building but do they need to get it from milk? The authors of this review showed that no studies have proven the link between dairy and strong bones.
A study, “The effect of dairy intake on bone mass and body composition in early pubertal girls and boys: a randomised controlled trial” by Vogel, Martin McCabe et al and published in 2017’s American Society for Nutrition, done on 240 healthy 8-15 year old children of different colour and weight, showed that feeding them three added servings of dairy, as against a control group that had none, had no effect at all. After 18 months the study found no difference in bone density between the children who had more dairy and the ones who didn’t. The US recommends that children ages 4 to 8 get 1,000 milligrams of calcium in their diets. The UK recommends half that much, just 450 to 550 milligrams a day. The difference in recommendations is not because scientists differ but is dependent on the political weightage of the dairy industry.
Humans get far more calcium from green vegetables nuts, beans. When you eat a food that makes no difference in calcium or protein but has chemicals, artificial hormones, antibiotics and pesticides in it, you also bring disaster to the environment. Dairy farms consume masses of water. They contribute to water pollution. The cattle emit methane which heats the atmosphere much more than carbon dioxide. Why don’t you do the world a favour and eat plastic instead?
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)