Wednesday, July 05, 2006

It's not the milk
April 29, 2006

Don’t get me wrong - I enjoy milk products as much as the next person. I’m very fond of cheese and butter, and cream in my morning coffee.
But the dairy industry’s relentless drive to convince us that milk is essential to human life really does get to be a bit much sometimes. Like this week, when the news was full of stories that not drinking enough milk during pregnancy was tantamount to smoking in terms of its impact on birth weight.
In fairness, CTV did mention that the study - published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal - was partially funded by the Dairy Farmers of Canada. But most news outlets didn’t note that detail. An average reader would likely conclude from the overall coverage that any pregnant woman who really cared about her child should be drinking plenty of milk.
In fact, sufficient Vitamin D was actually what made the difference in birth weight in the study of 279 pregnant women. The study, however, looked only at milk, noting slightly lower birthweights among the women who drank less than a cup a day.
“This is an important finding, because increasing numbers of women are restricting milk consumption during pregnancy,” noted the researchers, professors from Calgary and McGill universities.
Fears of weight gain, “self-diagnosed lactose intolerance,” and a belief that allergies in children may be linked to a woman’s pre-natal milk consumption are putting people off milk, say the researchers. They called for Canadian doctors to emphasize the importance of milk to their pregnant patients.
Indeed, fewer than 15 per cent of Canadian women drink cow’s milk. Milk sales across Western Canada are in decline. Were cow’s milk really the elixir of life, we’d be heading for a health crisis.
Fortunately, it isn’t. Milk has healthy properties, sure, and a lot of people love the taste of it. But you don’t have to be a biology genius to grasp that no species would evolve to be dependent on the breast milk of another species. We might like milk, but we don’t need it.
I admit to a certain bias, having not consumed more than 10 glasses of milk - and even then, all of them probably chocolate-flavoured - since emerging from my milk-mandatory childhood. “I always made you drink milk!” my mother often reminds me, and I remind her in turn that my compliance didn’t mean that I actually liked the stuff.
To each her own, however. Like I said, I eat plenty of other kinds of dairy products. But a study that clearly sets out to scare pregnant women into drinking more milk - well, that’s just wrong.
Research funded by industry interests is nothing new in Canada. Almost all research these days, including that done at universities, is funded at least in part by somebody with a business interest in the outcome.
So no surprises that the milk study concluded that the way to ensure a better birthweight for infants was for pregnant women to drink more milk - an extra cup a day. Wouldn’t that turn out to be a most perfect development for an industry with a major product line in decline? If every pregnant woman could be convinced that a lack of milk was virtually as harmful as smoking to her unborn child, milk markets would boom around the world.
What are the unbiased facts around Vitamin D? That turns out to be a tough question to answer, what with the Vitamin D supplement industry also hard at work these days spinning the health benefits of higher doses.
Once upon a time, the amount of sunshine we got in a day was all we needed. Our bodies produce Vitamin D in abundance when our skin is exposed to sunlight for at least 15 minutes daily. We’d have to drink more than 110 glasses of milk a day to get the same hit of Vitamin D that a little bit of sunshine can deliver.
But these days, sunshine is the enemy, and sunscreen the norm. People living in northern countries such as Canada generally don’t see enough sunny days anyway, particularly in the winter. Obesity is also thought to be interfering with people’s Vitamin D production, likely due to fat stores below the skin soaking up the vitamin before it can make it in to the rest of the body. Some researchers suspect that more than half of North Americans are Vitamin-D deficient.
Then again, none of that is a sure thing either.
“The reality is that we do not know what the Vitamin D requirement during pregnancy is,” noted independent researchers Bruce Hollis and Carol Wagner, of the Medical University of South Carolina, in their review of the milk study. “For that matter, we do not know the requirement for the general population, either.”
In the meantime, keep drinking your milk. Just don’t let them tell you that you have to.

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