Milk: Government Nutrition Nannies Wrong Again?

Add milk to your diet of salt, red meat, and eggs.


A Clockwork Orange

Government nutrition nannies have been giving a lot of bad advice about what constitutes healthy eating, according recent research. Federal dietary guidelines urging people to greatly restrict their consumption of salt, red meats, eggs, and fat may have ended up harming far more people than they have helped. Now comes new research suggesting that federal recommendations to cut back on drinking whole milk are wrong too.

In the early 20th century nutritionists, social activists (and dairy farmers, of course) hailed cow's milk as "nature's most perfect food." However, in the late 20th century, dietary guidelines devised by government nutritionists urged people to drink less whole milk as a way to reduce the consumption of fats that they believed led to heart disease. Among the key recommendations in the current federal guidelines is to "increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages." Since the 1970s, per capita milk consumption has dropped by 25 percent and whole milk consumption has dropped by half. 

Today's Washington Post is reporting the results of several new studies that actually find that milk consumption is associated with lower heart disease risk. One 2012 study reported that  "after adjustment for demographics, lifestyle, and dietary confounders, a higher intake of dairy SF [saturated fats, so-called bad fats] was associated with lower CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk." A second 2013 study found that biomarkers that track the level of dairy fats in the blood of 2800 subjects over 8 years "were not significantly associated with incident CVD [cardiovascular disease] or CHD [coronary heart disease]."

It is true that drinking whole milk increases "bad cholesterol," but it now appears that milk also boosts "good cholesterol" which appears to offset the heart damaging effects of the "bad cholesterol."

The Post article traces the intellectual path in which very preliminary epidemiological research in the 1950s was translated into hard and fast dietary rules by government bureaucracies. The upshot, as the Post reports, is that

the "campaign to reduce fat in the diet has had some pretty disastrous consequences,"  Walter Willett, dean of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health has said. "With more fat-free products than ever, Americans got fatter."

However, nannyism remains a professional hazard among nutritionists. For example, Willett still argues that eating red meats is a dietary no-no, whereas other researchers reported in 2013 that "meat consumption was not associated with mortality."

Given the manifold problems with epidemiology, it's hard not to conclude that a lot of nutrition science isn't really science. The Post article offers this excellent advice to nutrition nannies: "No more 'blanket recommendations'" when it comes to what people should and should not eat.

Finally, the new food findings are not a license to pig out. Eating fewer calories (I try, I do try) and consuming more fruits and vegetables is most likely good advice.

For more background see my colleague Jacob Sullum's prescient 2003 article, "The Anti-Pleasure Principle: The "food police" and the pseudoscience of self-denial."

Disclosure: I grew up on a dairy farm. It should have to go without saying, but I am against all subsidies, including dairy subsidies. See my article "The End of Farming," in which I report on biotech efforts to replace milk from cows with milk derived from genetically modified yeast.