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Got Osteoporosis?

If you were to believe the advertising associated with the "Milk Mustache" campaign, you would be concerned if you didn't get three glasses of milk a day. Consumers have been deluged with "Got Milk?" ads for years. This highly successful crusade features well-known celebrities (and even government officials!) sporting milk mustaches. Yet this campaign has been greeted with criticism from many medical and nutrition professionals. Why? Because of misleading information.

In July 2000, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit health advocacy and research organization, filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission. In September of 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expert panel responded to the complaint with a report largely supporting the physicians' complaints, finding that many of the milk ads make "untruthful health claims."

In fact, a significant amount of scientific research has prompted serious concerns regarding the health risks associated with consuming dairy products. Cow's milk and the majority of products made from it are high in fkt (particularly saturated fat) and cholesterol, and contain excess protein and contaminants, from pesticides to drugs. The advertising, sponsored by the National Dairy Council, gives the distinct impression that there is a "calcium emergency," and that we need to drink milk in order to keep our bones strong and healthy. Yet, according to Dr. Walter Willett, in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, osteoporosis is not a problem that should be associated with lack of calcium intake. Osteoporosis results from calcium loss, with excess dietary protein being a critical factor. He suggests that the substantial amount of protein in milk can result in a 50 percent loss of calcium in the urine! Clinical studies also have established that high protein intake aggravates calcium loss. For example, a 1994 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that when animal proteins were eliminated from the diet, calcium losses were cut in half.

The Harvard Nurses' Health Study, which followed more than 75,000 women for 12 years, showed no protective effect from increased milk consumption on fracture risk. What this study also revealed was that increased intake of calcium from dairy products was actually associated with a higher fracture risk. Despite this mounting evidence, the drinking of milk is diligently promoted for preventing osteoporosis. But, if consuming lots of dairy did prevent osteoporosis, Sweden, Finland, the United States, and Great Britain, having the highest rates of dairy consumption, would not enjoy the dubious distinction of also having the highest rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures in the world.

So what is in milk? Beyond the overload of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and protein, there are pesticides and antibiotics, and a powerful growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1. According to the Journal of the National Institutes of Health, and many scientific studies, this hormone is linked to the proliferation of breast cancer cells. Prostate cancer is the fourth most common malignancy among men worldwide, with an estimated 400,000 new cases diagnosed annually. Dairy product consumption has also been shown to increase serum concentrations of IGF-I. Case-control studies in diverse populations have shown a strong and consistent association between serum IGF-I concentrations and prostate cancer risk.

A recent study released by the Harvard School of Public Health also has linked the high intake of dairy products to an increased risk of prostate

cancer. Initially, researchers suspected that fat might be a factor, since whole milk is a source of excess fat and saturated fat. However, because 83 percent of the subjects in the study drank nonfat or skim milk, the researchers had to turn their attention to other possibilities. Dairy cows are treated with bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in order to boost milk production. This causes the level of IGF-1 to double in the cow's milk. Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says, "IGF-1 is indeed a growth factor, as the name implies. It causes things to grow. If you mix some of it with prostate cancer cells they grow like crazy. Other research studies have shown that when men (or women, for that matter) drink 2 or 3 glasses of milk a day, the amount of IGF-1 rises by about 10 percent. If you have more of this growth factor in your blood, the belief is that this would increase the likelihood that prostate cancer would arise." Dr. Barnard indicated that there have been a number of similar studies that have shown that men who have more IGF-1 in their blood have more prostate cancer risk. He also said that "even if a person drinks milk from a cow not treated with bovine growth hormone, there still is, we believe, sufficient evidence that IGF-1 levels in a human will rise . . . that the concentrated sugars and animal proteins (in cow's milk) stimulate the production of IGF-1 within the human body."

In Eat to Beat Cancer, Dr. Robert Hatherill, a research scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, indicates that we can set ourselves up for serious disease by exposing the body to dairy products. Infants with milk allergies make antibodies to fight milk proteins that are linked to destroying cells in the pancreas. In the case of cataracts, milk sugar can build up in the lens of the eye, causing irreversible clouding or cataract. Dr. Hatherill, whose field is environmental toxicology, also points out that cow's milk enhances the uptake of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other metals.

Is it possible for us to get the calcium we need without consuming lots of milk and dairy products? Just how much calcium do we need for healthy teeth and bones, and to stave off osteoporosis? In fact, the official recommended dietary allowance (RDA) in the United States is set at a hefty 1,000 milligrams per day for ages 19 to 50, and more for those over fifty and for pregnant and lactating women. But these recommendations are skewed, as they are set higher in order to compensate for the loss of calcium caused by the typical American diet based on animal products. Countries where dietary protein intake is very low set somewhat lower national recommendations. The World Health Organization recommends 500 milligrams of calcium for children and 800 for adults. Consider that elderly South African Bantu women consume a diet of about 50 grams of protein and only 450 milligrams of calcium per day, and do not develop osteoporosis. (In contrast, Eskimos, who consume a very high-protein diet with 250 to 400 grams of protein per day from fish, and a calcium intake of over 2,000 milligrams per day, have the highest rate of osteoporosis in the world!)

Dr. Charles Attwood points out in "Milk, A Catch-22" that adequate amounts of vegetables are better sources of calcium than milk and cheese. A cup of broccoli contains about the same amount of calcium as a cup of milk. A 1990 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that greens such as broccoli and kale have high levels of calcium that are absorbed at least as well as that in milk. Excellent calcium balance on a nondairy diet is easily attained because all vegetables and legumes contain calcium, and collectively it's more than adequate. Plus, this calcium stays in the bones, unlike much of that from the high-protein dairy products. In addition, while dairy products may seem to contain an impressive amount of calcium, in order for our bodies to absorb calcium another mineral, magnesium, must be present in comparable amounts. As milk and dairy products contain only small amounts of magnesium, calcium absorption from milk is only about 32 percent. The excess calcium is then utilized by the body in a number of damaging ways. For example, it may be converted by the kidneys into painful stones that block the urinary tract and contribute to arthritis, or even gout. Dr. Neal Pinckney, author and founder of The Healing Heart Foundation, has said, "magnesium . . . is richest in vegetables and whole grains."

So, milk does not offer any nutrients that cannot be found in a far healthier form in other foods. And milk's major selling point—that drinking it will prevent osteoporosis—has been discredited by a mountain of scientific evidence. A diet with a modest amount of protein and foods rich in calcium, that includes regular exercise is the prescription for protecting your bones. Listed here are some of the healthful sources of calcium in the plant kingdom.

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