Many ways to Milk a Cow: The Great Dairy Debate

Thanks to @nicoleosinga_rd for this one!

Thanks to @nicoleosinga_rd for this one!

"There aren't essential foods, but there are essential nutrients. There are many paths to the same destination."

We love this quote! In light of the on-going controversy surrounding milk, it is important to remind ourselves that there are many ways to skin a cat -- or should we say milk a cow?!  Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, but they aren't the only food source that provides dietary calcium. If you like milk, don't stop drinking it just because your friend watched a Netflix documentary that said milk is killing us all. It isn't. And, if you don't like milk, or other dairy products, don't fret because you can find calcium in other foods. A fellow dietitian, Abby Langer debunks many myths associated with dairy products on her blog- check out her insightful review if you're interested. 

There are two things we'd like you to keep in mind if you don't consume dairy: 1) Dairy products are a source of protein and other essential nutrients (e.g., vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium, B12), so if you are deciding to stop consuming dairy, or decreasing your intake, make sure you are also  compensating for the decrease in intake of these other nutrients in addition to calcium; and 2) Some non-dairy sources of calcium contain compounds that bind to calcium and interfere with absorption. For example, we only absorb about 5% of calcium from 1/2 cup of spinach, whereas we absorb about 49% from 1/2 cup of kale. Another example, is in 28 g of wheat bran you absorb ~30%, whereas in 20g (1 slice) of whole wheat bread you consume about 82%. The take home point is if you are going to get your calcium from non-dairy sources, just make sure you educate yourself while making food choices to ensure you are meeting nutrient needs. As Michelle would like to say, we are pro-calcium, but we just want to make sure that individuals are informed when making dietary choices.

For those who do consume dairy, there is a more recent controversy over whether or not to drink low-fat vs. full-fat milk. In fact, this post was inspired by a  Global News report earlier this week. Canada's food guide advises adults to consume lower fat (<2%MF) dairy products; however, research published this week may suggest otherwise. Before you order that full fat latte tomorrow morning, let's take a look at the argument and the original research papers (because as a PhD and a dietitian, that's our jam #nerdalert). Just a quick side-note: this controversy should not include children less than 5 years of age who need to consume 3%MF to account for their rapid growth and brain development. 

Here are the arguments that the Global News reporter made: 

Consuming full fat dairy can lower your risk of developing diabetes by 46%.  Interesting. Let's take a look at the original study. The study examined data from two large studies conducted in the US. In total, 3,333 men and women without diabetes who were 65 years of age (on average) at baseline were studied. At baseline, participants gave blood (to assess fatty acid levels) and reported their dietary intake through a food frequency questionnaire. Researchers then looked at diabetes diagnoses about 15 years later. The results suggest that consuming higher fat dairy products increased blood fatty acids, which is in turn associated with a lower risk of diabetes. Sounds like a bit of a milk run if you ask me (no pun intended!).  There are also some issues with the study: 1) This study looked at overall diary consumption  combined (milk, cheese, yogurts, ice creams etc.) and did not look at milk separately, so we can't say anything about milk alone- there is no way to tell how much milk participants drank or if they drank milk at all. 2) The study used food frequency questionnaires (FFQ) to analyze diary intake. FFQs are designed to analyze whole foods and not the context in which they are consumed (i.e. cheese on its own is very different from cheese on pizza), which is important when thinking about diabetes. 3) When thinking about stats, lesser incidence does not mean complete prevention- diabetes is a very complicated disease that is associated with many different risk factors. 4) The majority of participants identified as 'white' and so it is hard to generalize the findings to other races/ethnicities. 

Full fat dairy products have been found to lower women's risk of overweight by 8%. This study looked at 18,438 women over the age of 45 years who were initially all considered to be normal weight. The researchers had the women self-report their height and weight and complete a dairy-specific food frequency questionnaire at baseline. Then at follow-up (an average of 11 years later) women self-reported their height and weight again. The results suggested an inverse association between full fat dairy products and weight status (in basic terms- greater intake of high fat dairy products was associated with less weight gain at follow-up). A few things should be noted about this study: 1) there are many biases associated with self-reporting height and weight (any of you ever shaved a few pounds off when asked or added a few inches to your driver's license?!). 2) Again, dairy intake was self-reported through FFQs (see above). 3) This study only included normal weight women at baseline and so the same weight changes may not be applicable to women with higher weight statuses. 3) The study did not report any other aspects of the women's diets and so it is very possible that the women who consumed higher fat dairy products also had healthier diets (those who consumed low fat milk products could have had crappier diets). How do we even know that it was the high fat dairy that was associated with less weight gain? Maybe it was the amount of vegetables they ate! 4) No demographics were reported for the women studied so again, we have no idea if the results vary for women from different racial/ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Low fat milk is high in sugar. There is absolutely NO evidence of this. Take a look at the nutrition labels on various milk fat percentages. ALL white milks have about 12g of sugar per 1 cup of milk. This sugar is comes from the lactose in the milk and is all naturally occurring and thus not a concern. Check out our post on added sugars for more information about this. 

What's the bottom line?! 

While there is some evidence that higher fat milk products may be beneficial for some people, it is really more important to consider your diet overall. Calcium is essential, but the way you chose to get it is not. Low fat milk, high fat milk, take your pick. But make this decision while thinking about the other foods that you eat. If overall, your diet is crappy, consuming high fat milk (or other dairy products) isn't going to help, but if you have a pretty healthy diet, it likely won't hurt.  And when it comes to that full fat latte tomorrow morning, just be aware that higher fat milk drinks can also come with more added sugars! Be an informed consumer, but let's all stop panicking about the nitty gritty. 

-Kath & Michelle