White Lies: The Health Risks Of Dairy

Many people believe that cow's milk is essential in the human diet after years of the dairy industry promoting its product as a health product. But there are a number of health risks associated with consuming it
Woman looking disgsted at milk
Cow's milk is not the health food many believe it to be (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Cow’s milk is promoted as natural, wholesome and healthy – it is none of these things.

The saturated fat, animal protein, cholesterol, hormones and growth factors it contains are linked to a wide range of illnesses and disease. Aggressive marketing of milk and dairy products has resulted in confusion – people simply don't know who to believe.

Why is dairy such a disaster for health and why aren’t we talking about it?

Most people in the world – over 70 percent – don't drink milk as adults. No other animal on the planet continues to drink milk after weaning, and not just that – milk from another species that is usually pregnant.

It begs the question, are we asking for trouble?

The origins of dairy farming

Humans have been drinking milk for only 6,000-8,000 years. This might sound like a very long time but in evolutionary terms it is very recent history.

If the whole of modern human history was represented as a twelve-hour clock, starting at midday, humans would have started dairy farming less than one minute before midnight.

Milking the cash cow

Just like us, cows don’t produce milk unless they've given birth. Their offspring are taken away and the milking begins. The modern dairy cow is routinely impregnated while she is still producing milk, to extend the milking period and keep the yield high. The only breather she gets is a small respite near the end of her pregnancy.

At least two-thirds of cow's milk in the UK is taken from pregnant cows and so is a rich cocktail of hormones and growth factors, designed to help a young calf grow rapidly into an adult cow in just one year.

An intensive cycle of repeated pregnancies follows until she is worn out and her productivity drops, then she is slaughtered and sold for cheap meat. This intensive physical demand puts a tremendous strain on the dairy cow and, as she gets older, infertility and severe infections causing mastitis and lameness cut her life short. The average lifespan of a modern dairy cow is now only about five years – that is after three or four lactations, when naturally she may live for 20 to 30 years.

What lies beneath…

Cow's milk is perfect for calves but not for people – neither is buffalo, badger, dog or rat milk. The best milk for babies is human breast milk. Cow's milk contains more than twice as much protein and four times as much calcium as human milk, which makes it an ideal fuel for rapid growth.

Human babies grow much slower but our brain development is rapid so breast milk contains five times as much brain-boosting polyunsaturated fat as cow's milk. Milk also carries important chemical 'messenger' molecules that instruct the infant’s immune systems. These features have evolved over thousands of years and are vital in terms of health and disease.

Acne – putting milk on the spot

Cow's milk can increase our hormone levels, which may then lead to acne. This could be why some bodybuilders, who take whey supplements, get acne.

Allergies

Food allergies cause 10 percent of eczema and five percent of asthma cases. The most common food triggers for eczema are cow’s milk and eggs. Cow's milk allergy affects two per cent of infants under the age of one.

However, a hypersensitive reaction to milk proteins can seriously affect the amount of iron in infants and young children. The proteins can induce hidden gastrointestinal bleeding that may lead to iron deficiency anaemia, which may affect 40 per cent of otherwise healthy-looking infants.

Arthritis

Cow’s milk products make symptoms worse for some, while a low-fat vegan and gluten-free diet has been found to help others. Sulforaphanes (found in in broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage) have anti-inflammatory properties that may help protect against cartilage damage in osteoarthritis. A low fat-fat, vegan diet can be a powerful and positive, drug-free way of limiting the painful symptoms caused by this disease.

Cancer

One in two people born after 1960 in the UK will be diagnosed with some sort of cancer during their lifetime. Up to 40 per cent of these cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes. A poor diet may be responsible for a third of all cancer deaths and is the second largest preventable risk factor for cancer, coming close behind smoking.

Western diets containing meat and dairy, sugar and highly processed food products, can increase the risk of cancer. On the other hand, whole grain plant-based diets, which include fibre and antioxidants, lower the risk.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study found that vegans had a 19 per cent lower risk of cancer than meat-eaters (fish-eaters had a 12 per cent lower risk and vegetarians 11 per cent lower). The World Cancer Research Fund says that “…most diets that are protective against cancer are mainly made up from foods of plant origin”.

IGF-1 signalling trouble

Milk increases levels of the growth hormone IGF-1 in our bodies by stimulating its production in the liver. Increased IGF-1 levels are linked to cancers of the bowel, breast and prostate. It may also transform pre-existing or benign tumours into a more aggressive form of cancer.

Professor T. Colin Campbell, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, says that IGF-1 may turn out to be a predictor of certain cancers in the same way that cholesterol is a predictor of heart disease. A study from the British Journal of Cancer found that vegan men had a nine per cent lower IGF-1 level than vegetarians and meat-eaters.

plant-based milk
There are lots of plant-based alternatives to cow's milk

Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in England and the third most common cause of cancer death. Several lifestyle factors have been linked to it - a Western diet, physical inactivity, obesity and type 2 diabetes. The links between diet, weight and exercise and bowel cancer are some of the strongest for any type of cancer and raised IGF-1 levels are implicated.

Eating cheese, butter, cream, ice cream and other dairy foods not only increases IGF-1 levels but also increases the risk of becoming overweight and developing diabetes, which increases the risk of bowel cancer. Dairy foods offer no benefits to good bowel health while whole grain, plant-based diets containing plenty of fruit and vegetables (and therefore fibre) and low in saturated fat reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

Crohn's disease

Crohn's is linked to dairy foods via the MAP bacterium that causes Johne’s disease in cattle. MAP infection is widespread among cattle and is found in commercial milk. Infection may occur from inhaling MAP in fine water spray from rivers contaminated with infected cow manure.

This could explain the clusters of Crohn's that occur around cities with rivers such as Cardiff in Wales and Winnipeg in Minnesota, US. Professor John Hermon-Taylor at St George's Hospital Medical School in London has found MAP in patients with Crohn’s disease from the UK, Ireland, US, Germany and United Arab Emirates. Avoiding dairy may not ensure avoiding MAP exposure – although if there were fewer cattle there would be less MAP in the environment.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer rates in the UK have risen steeply since the 1970s; the lifetime risk is now one in eight. Only five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are caused by genes, most cases are caused by environmental factors. Research from Harvard School of Public Health suggests that nearly a third of all breast cancer deaths in high-income countries are caused by preventable lifestyle factors; alcohol, overweight/obesity, lack of exercise.

Women with breast cancer tend to have higher oestrogen levels and a typically meaty and dairy-rich Western-style diet increases the levels of these hormones. In fact, milk and dairy products are the main source of oestrogens in our diet.

Changing diet could prevent or limit the progression of the disease as high-fiber, low-fat, vegan diets may lower hormone levels. Soya foods can also reduce breast cancer risk and improve the prognosis for women with the disease. A dairy-free plant-based diet can reduce the risk factors associated with breast cancer and may help those who have been diagnosed with the disease.

Prostate cancer

The lifetime risk of prostate cancer for men in the UK is also one in eight. Just five to15 per cent of prostate cancers are linked to genes. So, like breast cancer, the majority of cases are caused by environmental and/or lifestyle factors.

Obesity and lack of exercise increases the risk. Rates are higher in countries consuming a typical Western diet. Men who eat lots of saturated animal fats (red meat such as beef, lamb and pork, eggs and butter, whole milk, cheese and cream) have an increased risk of getting the disease. Diets high in calcium and dairy protein may also increase the risk of prostate cancer.

Cow's milk protein increases IGF-1 levels, a known risk factor for prostate cancer. It has also been suggested that regular exposure to oestrogen in milk from pregnant cows may explain the increased risk of prostate cancer in Western societies. On the positive side, a plant-based diet may slow prostate cancer progression and improve prognosis. In addition, specific plant foods, including flaxseeds (linseed), lycopene-rich tomatoes and soya foods may help reduce the risk, along with a high level of physical activity. Organic tomato ketchup may contain up to three times as much lycopene as non-organic.

Heart disease

The World Health Organisation links heart disease to poor diets high in saturated fats, salt and refined carbohydrates and low in 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 unhealthy saturated fat with healthier polyunsaturated fat may be more effective in lowering the risk of heart disease than reducing the total amount of fat in the diet. Soya protein, nuts, plant sterols and soluble fibres (found in oats and some fruit, vegetables and pulses) can all help lower cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

Vegans have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. British vegetarians have a whopping 32 percent lower risk of hospitalization or death from heart disease than meat-eaters. Cutting out the dairy component can only help!

Diabetes

Early exposure to cow's milk proteins has been linked to type 1 diabetes. It is thought that certain proteins found in cow's milk may trigger an autoimmune reaction whereby our own immune cells attack these foreign dairy proteins, inadvertently destroying our insulin-producing pancreatic cells, thus leading to diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is occurring in younger and younger adults at the level of a global epidemic, driven by the increasing burden of obesity. If the trend continues, by 2035 the NHS could be spending nearly a fifth of its entire budget on diabetes alone.

Caused by obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise – this disease is preventable and reversible. One obvious solution is to cut down on meat and dairy and increase fiber-rich fruit, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. Vegan diets offer huge benefits for diabetes management, including weight loss and improving blood lipid profile and glycaemic control. Indeed, low-fat vegan diets have been shown to reverse type 2 diabetes.

Lactose Intolerance

In 1836, after returning from the Beagle, Charles Darwin wrote: "I have had a bad spell. Vomiting every day for 11 days, and some days after every meal."  For over 40 years, Darwin suffered from long bouts of vomiting, stomach cramps, headaches, severe tiredness, skin problems and depression.

Researchers now suggest that he suffered from lactose intolerance. His case is a good example of how easily lactose intolerance can be missed. The ability to digest lactose (the sugar in milk) evolved as a result of a genetic mutation among some people in central Europe around 7,500 years ago.

Descendants of these people are able to drink cow's milk today without suffering the symptoms of lactose intolerance (bloating, wind, discomfort etc). However, that doesn't mean it is good for them. Being lactose intolerant is the natural, normal state for most adults in the world.

Allergy v intolerance

Lactose intolerance should not be confused with cow's milk allergy – they are entirely different. Cow's milk allergy is where the immune system reacts to proteins found in the milk wheras lactose intolerance is when the body cannot digest lactose – the sugar in milk.

Bone health

Those countries which consume the most dairy foods and animal protein have the highest hip fracture rates – dairy products don't protect our bones. Despite what the dairy industry says, cow's milk is not the best source of calcium and your bone health would benefit enormously by switching to plant-based sources.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal, it was suggested that it is time we revised our calcium recommendations for young people and changed our assumptions about the role of calcium, milk and other dairy products play in the bone health of children and adolescents. Physical (especially weight-bearing) exercise is the most critical factor for maintaining healthy bones, followed by improving the diet and lifestyle.

This article presents a summary of Viva!'s 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 list of references, see the full report online at: www.vivahealth.org.uk/resources/scientific-reports/white-lies or go to www.whitelies.org.uk

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Plant Based News delivered to your inbox weekly.
------

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are prepared in the author's capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Plant Based News itself. 

Reuse this content
PBN Contributor:

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researches, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.

(c) 2019 Plant Based News LTD. All Rights Reserved. Content must not be copied without permission.

Join the conversation

Since you're here...
Plant Based News is a FREE service that receives millions of views each week on YoutubeFacebookInstagramTwitterour weekly newsletter and this website. This takes a lot of our personal time, money and hard work. But we do it because we KNOW it makes a difference. If those following our reporting helped by contributing, we could do even more. Please consider supporting us so we can create further awareness about animal rights, environmentalism, ethical consumerism and the plant-based lifestyle. Not a false narrative - but information that empowers people to make better choices.

It's World Vegan Day