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Got (Skim) Milk?: Maybe a Recipe for Obesity and Cancer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The USDA, the American Academy of Academy of Pediatrics and other august institutions recommend that all calorie-containing beverages, except low-fat milk, should be limited in people’s diets. The dairy industry made the “Got Milk” slogan one of the most famous of all time—and guidelines for healthy eat/drink incorporate that entreaty: three cuppa a day, less the saturated fat, does well by both child and adult.

A not-so-fast commentary published online on Monday in JAMA Pediatrics by two noted nutrition scientists, suggests that, without additional evidence, these guidelines should be softened to emphasize that less may be more: “a broader acceptable range of intake, such as zero, two or three cups per day, instead of a universal minimum requirement.” Added to that, David Ludwig and Walter Willett, both of whom have affiliations with Harvard Medical School, think that the low-fat requirement should be nixed.

So what’s s going on here? Is this a broadside against the most wholesome of wholesomes? Here’s the rationale to trash skim milk moustaches: Foods with less fat may make you feel less full. The child who grabs that extra cookie because of lingering hunger pangs increases the intake of refined carbohydrates and thereby risks extra pounds. Few gold-standard clinical studies have looked at the effects of low-fat milk on weight loss. One analysis, though, showed that refined carbs like Twinkies and Coke can pack on the pounds, but whole milk doesn’t.

And what about the saturated fat in whole milk? The researchers knock that one down by pointing out that while saturated lipids up the “bad” cholesterol, known as low-density lipoproteins, they also increase the good kind,  high-density lipoproteins, making the whole thing somewhat of a wash.

Humans have no need to “get” milk in their diets, a relatively recent addition to our culinary mix in the grand sweep of human history. And that raises the question of the white beverage as a source of dietary calcium. Here, too, it may not live up to its billing. Ludwig and Willett point out that  bone fracture rates are higher in countries where milk is a mainstay. Other foods—leafy greens, nuts, seeds—can also fulfill needed calcium requirements.

The authors’ get-away from milk manifesto doesn’t stop there.  There is also an evolutionary argument. Grazing animals evolved to supply milk to their young, keeping them close to protect against predation. But this all stops when calves and kids turn into cows and goats.  Human adults who chug the preferred drink of suckling grazers thrice daily for decades may not fare so well.  The hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 found in milk products has been tied to prostate and other cancers.

The dairy industry is not going to be happy with Drs. Ludwig and Willett. The site has a submenu that lists the benefits of dairy for muscles, PMS, bones, sleep, hair, skin, nails and teeth. The ultimate health drink, it would seem. But until further studies sort all this out, Ludwig and Willett say that milk consumption should be on the list of menu optionals, and no need to look for the skim carton on the supermarket shelf.

Source: Wikimedia Commons



Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. daviddriscoll 11:43 pm 07/4/2013

    So skim milk is ‘bad’ because a kid MIGHT grab a cookie to make up for the extra calories? If they grabbed a piece of fruit instead, would skim milk be good?

    I would also love to see the mechanism for intact absorption of a huge molecule like IGF-1 (I think drug companies might like to know too, oral delivery of it and polypeptides like Growth Hormone would be great). The proteins would not only have to survive the pH of the stomach as well as the proteases..

    I can see athletes now doping and claiming it was the milk that elevated their IGF levels!

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Marjanović 8:42 am 07/7/2013

    Skimmed milk is an abomination. It’s water, not milk.

    Not living in the US, I never heard of three times daily, though. That’s more than what I want.

    Ludwig and Willett point out that bone fracture rates are higher in countries where milk is a mainstay.

    It’s easy to come up with ways in which this could be a correlation without causation…

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  3. 3. David Cummings 2:23 pm 07/7/2013

    What if instead of drinking one glass of whole milk, the kid drank two glasses of skim milk? Would s/he still reach for the extra cookie?

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  4. 4. Dr. Strangelove 11:11 pm 07/7/2013

    So skim milk causes obesity because its less fat makes you eat cookies. Therefore, drink vegetable oil instead of skim milk. Vegetable oil is pure fat, it will make you eat less cookies.

    BTW how many people got cancer from milk? Without actual numbers, this is wishful thinking from two doctors who hate milk.

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  5. 5. Andreas Johansson 11:10 am 07/10/2013

    Skimmed milk is an abomination. It’s water, not milk.

    Hey, don’t diss water, it’s my favorite, or at least main, source of water!

    I usually have skim milk with my breakfast cereals, but only today was prescribed antibiotics that should not be taken in conjunction with dairy products. This will be an interesting couple of weeks – no milk or cheese mornings or evenings clashes remarkably with my culinary habits.

    But even in normal times it’s a rare day I have the equivalent of three glasses of skim milk.

    (And it’s normally skim milk – it’s what I was brought up on, so whole milk tastes “wrong” to me.)

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