Milk — The Latest Pop Science Food Fight

Start with a wholesome food like milk, mix in ubiquitous dietary recommendations based on thin evidence, and you’re bound to get a food fight sooner or later. That’s what two distinguished nutrition and obesity experts, David Ludwig and Walter Willett, have stirred up with a commentary just published in JAMA Pediatrics. They question the value of three daily servings of milk and suggest that substituting skim for whole milk may be doing more harm than good.

Ludwig and Willett point out that little evidence exists to show that substituting reduced-fat milk for whole milk actually prevents weight gain or produces other health benefits. And, in fact, a recent longitudinal study by Rebecca Scharf and colleagues found that skim and 1% milk did nothing to prevent overweight and obesity in two- to four-year-olds. This may be because lower-fat milk is less satiating, say Ludwig and Willett.

On top of all this, they proceed to question the role of animal milk in human nutrition, saying that humans have no nutritional requirement for it — it’s a very recent addition to our diets.

When low-fat everything became prevailing wisdom in the 80s, dairy held onto its central place in the food pyramid with an emphasis on low-fat dairy foods. Whole milk became the exception, low-fat and skim became the choice for families that cared about the health of their children. But despite the best marketing efforts of the Dairy Council, per-capita milk consumption has fallen by a third since 1970 and each generation is consuming less than the prior generation.

With this downward trend in the background, Ludwig, Willett, and other observers are piling on to the Dairy Council’s woes. Last year, Mark Bittman published a widely-read commentary in the New York Times titled “Got Milk? You Don’t Need It.”

And thus the food fight begins. You can expect more heat than light from popular media. A recent headline in Scientific American read “Got (Skim) Milk? Maybe a Recipe for Obesity and Cancer.”

Simmer down, folks.

Click here to read more in Time, click here to access the commentary by Ludwig and Willett, click here to read the study by Scharf, and click here to read the Bittman commentary.

Just Milk, photograph © Pedro Moura Pinheiro / flickr

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