Dr Justine Butler presents a summary of the report ‘White Lies’ and writes for Vegan Life to clear up the misconceptions about cow’s milk
Soya milk, oat milk or rice milk? The number of people choosing dairy-free milk continues to soar. However, despite an increasing body of evidence challenging the spotless image of the white stuff, government policy continues to promote dairy. It’s time we said enough is enough!
We know about the danger to health associated with fish contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and dioxins. The government warns people to limit their intake because of it. The links between red and processed meats and bowel cancer are well-documented. Again, we are told to avoid processed meats and cut down on red meat. However, dairy continues to slip under the net. It’s as if the white stuff is so pure, natural and wholesome its beneficial properties are beyond question. It is portrayed as liquid calcium for bones, an elixir of goodness for the young, fussy, poorly and elderly. Challenging the notion that cow’s milk is healthy is considered almost heretical. However, a huge body of scientific evidence links cow’s milk and dairy products to all manner of illness and diseases from heart disease, diabetes and cancer to acne, allergies and osteoporosis…
Most people in the world don’t drink milk. They couldn’t if they wanted to; over 70% of adults are lactose intolerant. They can’t digest lactose – the sugar in milk. Not to be confused with cow’s milk allergy, where the immune system reacts to cow’s milk proteins. We have no nutritional requirement for cow’s milk. It is said to be ‘natural, wholesome and healthy’ and it is for baby cows, but they grow 40 times faster than human infants!
The idea that humans must suckle from cows for their entire lives for calcium is clearly absurd. We wouldn’t drink milk from a cat or dog. No other animal on the planet continues to drink milk after weaning. This unusual practise begs the question, are we asking for trouble?
The Heart of the Matter
The number of people in the UK with heart disease has remained fairly constant over the last decade. The benefits we should be seeing (due to advances in medical treatment and the drop in smoking) are being cancelled out by the increase in obesity and diabetes. We may be smoking less, but we are eating more and making poor dietary choices; high levels of saturated fat, salt and refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice and white pasta) and low levels of fruit and vegetables.
Foods high in saturated fat include: meat pies, sausages and fatty cuts of meat, butter, ghee, lard, cream, hard cheese, cakes and biscuits and foods containing coconut or palm oil. Replacing these foods with ones containing unsaturated fats (avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds) can be more effective in lowering your risk of heart disease than reducing the total amount of fat you eat. A move that offers major health benefits according to the World Health Organisation. Going dairy-free, while increasing your intake of fibre, fruit and vegetables, is a simple way of reducing saturated fat, losing weight and lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease by pushing up levels of cholesterol produced by the liver. This cholesterol can build up in the arteries giving rise to fatty plaques which can block blood flow and cause a stroke or heart attack. Foods that help lower cholesterol include: soya, nuts, plant sterols and soluble fibres from wholegrain foods, fruit and vegetables. Vegetarians and vegans who eat diets based on cereals, pulses, nuts, fruits and vegetables tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A large study from the University of Oxford found that being vegetarian lowered the risk of hospitalisation or death from heart disease by a third. This means choosing a healthy plant-based vegetarian diet and not one based on cream cakes and cheesy pizzas!
Since 1996, the number of people with diabetes in the UK has risen from 1.4 million to 3.2 million. It is expected to rise to five million by 2025. If the trend continues, by 2035 the NHS will have to spend nearly a fifth of its entire budget on treating diabetes.
The peak age for diagnosis of type 1 (juvenile) diabetes in the UK used to be 10-14 years but we are now seeing a steep rise in the under-fives. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the body’s own insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. It involves a combination of genetic factors (diabetes in the family) coupled to an environmental trigger. Possible triggers include: viral infection, vaccines, low levels of vitamin D, increased insulin demand and the early exposure to cow’s milk protein. Only in recent years has cow’s milk protein been recognised as a trigger. Research shows that even a short duration of early exposure (to infant formula for example), may be enough to cause the disease.
Type 2 diabetes used to mainly affect adults over 40 but is also now occurring in much younger people, driven by increasing levels of obesity. It has changed from being a disease of our grandparents and parents to a disease of our children. The risk factors are well-documented; obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise. Cutting down on saturated fat is an obvious and easy step you can take to reduce your risk. This means cutting down on meat and dairy and increasing your intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. Vegetarian and vegan diets offer significant benefits for both preventing and managing diabetes.
Milking the Cash Cow
Selective breeding and modern intensive farming methods have significantly changed the nature of cow’s milk. Modern dairy cows are routinely impregnated while still producing milk, so over two-thirds of UK milk is taken from pregnant cows, the rest comes from cows that have recently given birth. As a consequence, the cocktail of hormones and growth factors in milk is present at high levels; milk is a growth-promoting substance. The hormones in milk have been linked to the development of hormone-dependent cancers such as ovarian and breast cancer.
IGF-1 Signalling trouble
Cow’s milk stimulates the body to produce a growth hormone called IGF-1. In the laboratory, IGF-1 makes human cancer cells grow and higher IGF-1 levels in the body are linked to cancers of the bowel, breast and prostate. Scientists studying prostate cancer have suggested that IGF-1 may also transform pre-existing or benign tumours into more aggressive forms of cancer. Professor T. Colin Campbell, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, New York, says that IGF-1 may turn out to be a predictor of some cancers in the same way that cholesterol is a predictor of heart disease. Avoiding milk and dairy products can reduce IGF-1. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found the level among vegan men was nearly 10%lower than in meat-eaters and vegetarians.
Breast cancer rates among women in Britain have soared by almost 70% since the mid-1970s. The lifetime risk is now an astonishing one in eight. However, only 5% – 10% of breast cancers are caused by genes, the vast majority are caused by environmental factors such as alcohol, obesity (poor diet), and lack of exercise. According to research from Harvard School of Public Health, nearly a third of all breast cancer deaths are caused by preventable lifestyle factors.
The global rise in breast cancer is directly linked to the adoption of a Western-style diet characterised by high intakes of meat, dairy and saturated fat. Women with breast cancer tend to have higher levels of oestrogens in their blood. A typical Western diet increases the levels of these hormones. Researchers at the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California Medical School in Los Angeles suggest that reducing fat intake to lower hormone levels may help prevent breast cancer. This doesn’t mean low-fat dairy products are the answer as these still contain the hormones that concern many scientists. A large body of evidence shows that a high-fibre, low-fat diet can protect against breast cancer, possibly by lowering hormone levels. Soya foods also reduce the risk and improve the prognosis in women with breast cancer. In summary, a dairy-free plant-based diet can reduce the risk factors for breast cancer and help those who have been diagnosed with the disease.
The lifetime risk of prostate cancer for men in the UK is also one in eight. Just 5% – 15% of prostate cancers are linked to genes. So, like breast cancer, most cases are caused by environmental and lifestyle factors. Obesity and lack of exercise increase the risk and prostate cancer rates are far higher in countries where they eat a typical Western diet. Men who eat lots of saturated fats (found in red meat, eggs and dairy foods such as butter, whole milk, cheese and cream) have an increased risk. Diets high in calcium and dairy protein may also increase the risk. It has been suggested that regular exposure to oestrogen in milk from pregnant cows may also increase the risk. Dr Bodo Melnik, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Dermatology, Environmental Medicine and Health Theory at the University of Osnabrück in Germany says cutting dairy protein intake… “may offer protection from the most common dairy-promoted cancer in men of Western societies”. Specific plant foods, including flaxseeds (linseed) and lycopene-rich tomatoes and soya foods may help reduce the risk along with a high level of physical activity. In summary, a vegan diet may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer, slow progression of the disease and improve prognosis in those with it.
Whether it is the saturated animal fat, the calcium, the hormones in milk or the hormones we produce in response to drinking milk, the fact remains that a high dairy diet appears to increase the risk of some cancers.
Not Cool for Kids
Acne, asthma, colic, eczema and ear infections are all linked to dairy. Intestinal bleeding, caused by milk allergy, affects about 40% of otherwise healthy infants and can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia. But it’s not just children who are affected, other illnesses linked to dairy include arthritis, Crohn’s disease, dementia, food poisoning, gallstones, kidney stones, migraine, multiple sclerosis, obesity and somewhat unexpectedly… osteoporosis.
Boning Up on the Facts
Most people in the world don’t drink milk yet their bones are perfectly strong. Those who drink the most milk, on the other hand (in Northern Europe and the US) have the highest levels of osteoporosis. The World Health Organisation state that:
“The paradox clearly calls for an explanation. To date, the accumulated data indicate that the adverse effect of protein, in particular animal (but not vegetable) protein, might outweigh the positive effect of calcium intake on calcium balance.”
Cow’s milk is not the best source of calcium; our bones benefit more from plant-based sources. A study in the British Medical Journal suggested that we revise our calcium recommendations for young people. They say we should encourage children to pursue active play and sports and consume a nutritious diet made from whole foods from plant sources to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and build strong bones. Weight-bearing exercise (walking, running and dancing), is the most important factor for maintaining healthy bones, followed by improving the diet and lifestyle. To protect your bones – use ‘em or lose ‘em!
Taking the Pus!
At any given time, one third of dairy cows have mastitis, a painful bacterial infection of the udders. Like us, cows produce pus when they are fighting an infection. Pus is made up of white blood cells (leukocytes) and dead cell tissue carried in a thin fluid. White blood cells are the immune system’s ‘soldiers’ sent to attack the bacteria causing infection.
The dairy industry uses a Somatic Cell Count (SCC) to identify milk from infected cows. Somatic cells (cells from the body) occur naturally, but most of those in milk are white blood cells. A low SCC may indicate a healthy immune system but a very low SCC can be a sign of a weak immune response. A high SCC indicates infection.
EU laws allow up to 400,000 cells per ml (750,000 in the US), more than that and the milk cannot be sold. Average levels are estimated to be around half that which equates to one million cells per teaspoonful of milk! Organic milk is not the answer – organic dairy farmers can’t use antibiotics to control the disease so the situation can be even worse. The dairy industry insists that there is no risk to human health as milk is pasteurised. But do you really want to drink pasteurised pus?
The realisation is growing that changing our diet can have an enormous impact on health – for better or for worse. Cow’s milk is vigorously defended by the dairy industry, but the evidence paints a very different picture. It’s time to go dairy-free!
This article presents a summary of an extensive fully-referenced scientific report called White Lies. All the facts presented are based on peer-reviewed published research. To find out more or to access the full references, see the report online at: www.whitelies.org.uk
Dr Justine Butler is a Senior Researcher and Writer at Viva!Health. Justine holds a PhD in Molecular Biology, BSc Biochemistry and Diploma in Nutrition. She has published an extensive list of reports, guides and factsheets for Viva!Health and written many articles for health journals, regional and national press.