Harvard Doctor Refutes Milk Recommendations

Elise Solé, Shine Staff
Healthy Living
July 2, 2013

Reduced-fat milk—does it really do a body good?

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Not necessarily — reduced-fat milk is sugary and caloric, according to the results of a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. 

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One Harvard professor is challenging current recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Academy of Pediatrics that people of all ages drink three servings of reduced-fat milk per day. David Ludwig, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, says the low-fat dairy drink is loaded with sugar and calories (for context, 2 percent milk has 122 calories and 12.3 grams of sugar per cup). He also says there are plenty of solid foods that provide adequate amounts of calcium.

“Fat is an essential nutrient that provides many benefits. It slows digestion and provides satiety after a meal,” Ludwig told Yahoo! Shine. “But simply reducing fat doesn’t promote weight loss or improve cardiovascular health, because those calories are typically replaced by refined carbohydrate—just witness the low-fat Twinkie.”

And chocolate milk is even worse. “Reduced-fat chocolate milk has about the same calories as unsweetened whole milk, 3 grams less saturated fat, and 15 grams more sugar,” Ludwig said. “This substitution of sugar for fat lowers nutritional quality, especially for children who are already overloaded on sugar.”

What’s more, he says, people who eat well may not even need the recommended three serving of milk. “We can satisfy all our calcium and other nutrient requirements from a high-quality diet, including green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and perhaps fish,” says Ludwig. “But the marketing of milk has been enormously successful, based on milk sales. And the USDA aims to promote commodities, such as milk.  The marketing arm of kale or sardine producers, for example, hasn’t been able to compete.”

Ludwig's paper even suggests that the consumption of any kind of milk may be unnecessary. “From the dawn of our species until the evolutionarily recent domestication of large animals, humans consumed absolutely no dairy milk,” he told Shine. “Even today, a majority of the world’s population drinks little to no animal milk. However, milk and related products can be part of a nutritious diet. But the recommendation for virtually everyone to drink three cups a day is excessive and not evidence based.” He recommends broadening the guidelines to zero to three cups daily, based on people’s individual diets.

A spokesperson for the American Dairy Association and the National Dairy Council told Yahoo! Shine in an email:

"The American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Inc promotes the USDA guidelines that recommend 3 servings of low fat milk a day.  Because 73 percent of the calcium available in the food supply is provided by milk and milk products (source: International Dairy Foods Association), it is difficult to get recommended levels of calcium by consuming non-dairy sources.  For instance, you would have to consume 3 cups of cooked kale to equal the amount of calcium in one cup of 2 percent milk.  Milk also provides eight other essential nutrients in the diet including vitamins A, D, B12 and protein."

Given the high obesity rate—a new Gallup report found that the rate in the United States is 27.1, up from last year’s 26.2—reduced-fat milk seemed like a smarter solution than its slimmer counterpart, skim (one Harvard study found that it leads to weight gain in girls and fat-free foods generally aren’t as satiating because fat digests slowly, allowing the body to feel full longer). Adults have expanded palates to allow for more varied diets, but what does the research mean for kids? 

“The push for kids to drink milk is about making sure they get their recommended amount of calcium. Kids under the age of 2 should drink full-fat milk for brain development and that amount can vary; kids ages 2 to 10 need 800-2,000 milligrams, and adults need 1,200 to 2,000 milligrams,” Lisa Kaufman, a pediatrician at Village Pediatrics in New York City told Yahoo! Shine.

“Many parents would be thrilled if their kids ate lots of leafy greens but most kids won’t, so milk is easy and kids tend to like it, especially in their cereal, until the ages of 5 to 7. After that, they tend to lose the taste for it or are exposed to beverages such as soda and energy drinks,” she said.

“As a pediatrician, I might recommend whole milk—it’s only four percent fat, which may surprise people—or reduced fat milk, but it depends on what else the child is eating,” she says. “Right now, reduced-fat milk is the best option we have.”

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