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Does milk really do a body good?

You know it like the Pledge of Allegiance: "Milk helps build strong teeth and bones."

But does it really? Or, as nutrition researchers from Harvard and Cornell universities are radically suggesting: Have we all been duped by the dairy industry's slick, celebrity-driven "Got milk?" advertising campaign?

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Milk, the sacred cow of the American diet, is under attack and not just by animal-rights activists. Though federal dietary guidelines and most mainstream nutrition experts recommend that people age 9 and older drink three glasses of milk a day, researchers are examining the role of dairy in everything from rising osteoporosis rates, Type 1 diabetes and heart disease to breast, prostate and ovarian cancer.

Last March, the journal Pediatrics published a review article concluding that there is "scant evidence" that consuming more milk and dairy products will promote child and adolescent bone health.

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Some leading practitioners of integrative medicine, including best-selling author Dr. Andrew Weil, suggest eliminating dairy products from the diet to help treat irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, eczema and ear infections.

The late Dr. Benjamin Spock reversed his support of cow's milk for children in 1998 in his last edition of his world-famous book Baby and Child Care.

One fact is indisputable: Our bodies need the mineral calcium to build and maintain bones and teeth. Calcium also helps with blood clotting, muscle function and regulation of the heart's rhythm. The debate centers on whether milk is really the best - or even a necessary - source. Ten thousand or so years ago, cow's milk was not part of the human diet.

Whom do you believe?

For consumers, the issue is profoundly confusing, especially when it comes to osteoporosis. On one hand, we have had it hammered home since grammar school that milk is a health food. We are told that increasing calcium intake by drinking milk will prevent osteoporosis, the weakening of bones.

But researchers Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, say there is little evidence that shows boosting calcium intake to the currently recommended levels will prevent fractures.

Willett, who co-authored "The Nurses' Health Studies," one of the largest investigations into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women, found that women with the highest calcium consumption from dairy products had substantially more fractures than women who drank less milk.

Campbell, who like Willett comes from a dairy-farming family, found the same thing after spending several decades surveying health-related effects of a plant-based diet and death rates from cancer in more than 2,400 Chinese counties.

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Both men say there is no calcium emergency; Americans get plenty. And they argue that the unnecessary focus on calcium prevents us from using strategies that really work in the fight against osteoporosis, including getting enough exercise and vitamin D and avoiding too much vitamin A.

"The higher the consumption of dairy, animal protein and calcium, the higher the fracture rate - an indisputable observation in my view," said Campbell, whose life work is compiled in The China Study (Benbella Books, $24.95), one of the most comprehensive nutritional studies undertaken.

The link between milk and cancers is sketchier. Peer-reviewed studies back both pro- and anti-dairy viewpoints - although a growing body of evidence has shown that animal-based foods are associated with prostate cancer, possibly because of the high intake of calcium and phosphorus, Campbell said.

The dairy industry, the federal government and most conventional registered dietitians and nutritionists say just the opposite. Milk is more than just calcium; it's a relatively cheap little package of fat, vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and minerals.

Some research shows calcium may help protect against colon cancer and high blood pressure. A large-scale government study called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) found that a balanced, low-fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods may help reduce blood pressure as effectively as some medications.

The calcium from some vegetables, such as broccoli, bok choy and kale, is absorbed as well as or better than calcium from milk and milk products, according to the National Dairy Council's Calcium Counseling Resource. But the report also says that to get the same amount of calcium absorbed from one cup of milk, one would have to eat nearly two cups of broccoli or eight cups of spinach.

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"The advantage of dairy is that it's convenient, and children are more likely to consume it over broccoli and prunes," said Jeanette Newton Keith, a gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago. She advocates a whole-food diet and recommends dairy as part of the DASH plan.

"Anti-dairy groups say you don't need it in the diet. Unfortunately, 83 percent of the calcium in our diets comes from dairy foods," Keith said.

Though dairy is high in saturated fat, the dairy industry claims that low-fat dairy products can encourage weight loss. During the past few years it has spent millions on a controversial "Got milk?" advertising campaign, using milk-mustachioed figures such as television's Dr. Phil McGraw.

In response, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed false-labeling petitions in June with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. They maintain that the "Got milk?" weight-loss ads are "dishonest," because scientific evidence contradicts the claims.

In the midst of this debate, vegan Mickey Hornick and his wife, chef Jo Kaucher, who co-own the meat-free restaurant Chicago Diner, have found a growing market for their soy cheeses (casein-free); soy, rice and nut milks; organic soy ice creams; vegan cream cheese; and tofu ricotta.

Their establishment has been an oasis for Rikke Vognsen and her husband, David Saxner, who cut dairy out of their diets 20 years ago to help with Saxner's arthritis. He also lost 80 pounds in the process.

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Their belief is that dairy creates dampness in the body and promotes yeast growth. But they also wanted to avoid ingesting residues of the hormones, antibiotics and other supplements given to the cows that produce non-organic milk.

The dairy industry insists that milk is free of antibiotics given to cows and that there is no "significant" difference in cows treated with hormones produced with biotechnology, known as recombinant bovine somatotropin.

"We saw immediate improvements in my husband's health after eliminating dairy," Vognsen said.

But some can't imagine life without whole milk in their lattes or mozzarella cheese on their pizza. Trina Kakacek, the adult aquatic director at Chicago's Lakeshore Athletic Club, drinks a glass of skim milk and eats cheese and yogurt daily. Once a week she treats herself to ice cream.

"I would never dream of giving up dairy, particularly cheese or the real cream in my coffee every morning," said Kakacek, who is allergic to nuts and soy and rarely eats meat.

Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune.


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