Milk: let’s take stock of the situation


by Maria Assunta Coppola

“Drink your milk, it’s good for you!” How many times have we read or heard this slogan in magazines or on TV, and how many times have we been told so – perhaps by our grandmother or our family doctor. But no food is good or bad altogether: each food can be good or bad depending on how we use it, on the amount we take in, and on the physiological and metabolic needs of each person.

Did you know, for example, that in Southern Europe about 70% of the population (including Italians) suffers from lactose intolerance? Why then do we continue to take in this sugar – which is exclusively found in milk – as adults, despite our body tends to not digest it any longer? We are the only mammals who continue to feed on milk as adults, and we do so even though from a genetic point of view we are not prepared. I remember how my dear professor of Medical Genetics, the esteemed Sergio Cocozza, explained to me lactose intolerance, as a “fairy tale”. In ancient times, in times of famine, the elderly and the infant were competing for the mothers’ breast milk. To survive, the grandfather, the father, the uncle or other adults close to the breastfeeding mothers tended to steal the milk of the baby to calm their hunger, thus challenging a dogma of Nature: the old left no more room for the “new”.

Of course, Mother Nature was not there to assist passively, but to defend the survival of the newborn: the solution was making the “old” lactose intolerant, modifying the activity of the lactase enzyme of its DNA. The introduction of livestock rearing was the final response to this competition, providing plenty of vaccine milk to all with no preferences. Intolerance, then, went slowly receding. The point is that not enough time has passed for the ability to digest milk to be restored in all adults!

The situation is quite different in children and adolescents, where the lactase enzyme is almost always sufficiently active to split the lactose into monosaccharide, glucose and galactose, thus preventing gastro-intestinal disorders due to indigestion. In addition, in the young, the milk composition is useful for the proper assimilation of calcium, magnesium and zinc, which are essential for bone health; and promotes the development of intestinal bifidobacteria, which are useful for maintaining a healthy bacterial flora in the colon and for blocking pathogens in the small intestine. Finally milk gives galactose, a sugar necessary for the proper development of the nervous system as well as complete proteins, vitamins and trace elements.

A recent study conducted by the Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago [I beg your pardon, I could not find it, NDG] has shown that the consumption of milk in pre-pubertal age proves crucial to the child’s growth through the increase in the level of serum IGF -1: this hormone plays a key role in the bone metabolism, especially influencing the epiphyseal cartilage, the area responsible for accretion in length of long bones, which promotes height growth in childhood and puberty. The thesis is confirmed by another publication, by Black et al. This second study, performed on children between three and nine years old, shows that, in the long term, avoiding milk results in short stature and poor bone health in growing children. Thus the IGF-1 found in cow’s milk, which is completely identical to that produced by the human liver, is essential for the growth of children. The body’s production of this hormone tends to decrease with age and is reduced to about half at 70 years of age: if we drink milk, this hormone tends to remain at high levels in the body, and this can be risky, as IGF-1 has been shown capable of stimulating the growth of both normal and cancerous cells, and has been associated with increased incidence of breast cancer and prostate cancer. Suffice it to say that in the two areas of Europe where people drink more milk, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, there is a higher rate of breast cancer. Milk is one of the foods that we do not recommend to women with a history of breast cancer who come for an appointment at the Consulting room for Cancer Prevention and Care run by myself and Dr. Iasevoli at the “Foundation Bartolo Longo” in Pompeii – inspired by the diet of Dr. Diana Berrino of INT Milan.

Another important consideration: the milk that we drink today is not the milk that our ancestors used to drink, when cows were grazing on unspoiled hills and fed on grass, without the antibiotics, steroids, growth hormones, herbicides or pesticides that are carried by forage nowadays. The milk may contain also this, as well as a variety of growth factors that convey to the hypophysis of the calf the message to reach a weight of over 100 kg at six months of age! It is clear that this specific information does not correspond to the normal growth of a human being, especially if she or he no longer needs to “grow”.

But then, is it really so essential for us to drink milk? Undoubtedly, it is a beverage rich in animal proteins, essential “building blocks” of our muscles and bones. Milk proteins, like the proteins of meat and cheese, acidify the plasma, which results in using calcium from the bones to alkalize the plasma and to restore its ph. Furthermore, the amount of phosphate in cow’s milk is six times higher than in human milk, and the consequent increase of its plasma concentration lowers serum calcium with recall of calcium from the bones. Proofs that milk is not so good for the bones come from different studies: for example, the Harvard study “Nurses’ Health Study”, which clinically observed more than 72,000 women in an 18-year long time span, demonstrates that increased consumption of dairy products is not associated with a lower risk of fractures. Wynn et al. carried out a prospective study and concluded that urinary calcium increases of 0.04 mmol (1.6 mg) per gram of protein intake.

The consumption of dairy products by 3,000 young adults was observed in the CARDIA study and found to be linked to the development of the typical clinical features of the metabolic syndrome (obesity, high blood pressure, impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and dyslipidemia).

So how to behave? Let’s start by cutting the consumption of animal foods (be careful here, I am talking of “reducing”, not “excluding” them completely) especially cured meats, red meat and dairy products, which besides the risk of osteoporosis bring in saturated fats, harmful to the health of the cardio -vascular system. And let’s increase the consumption of proteins of plant origin, such as those of legumes: chickpeas, lentils and beans bring in good amounts of calcium without the risk of lowering the pH of the plasma. Their advantage is in the lack of some sulfur-rich amino acids, methionine and cysteine, which are present in the proteins of animal origin and are capable of generating acids in our blood.

It is also useful to eat wild fish, rich in calcium, magnesium and bioavailable phosphates, as well as green leafy vegetables such as chicory, arugula, radicchio and chard. The same amount of calcium of a glass of milk is found in a cup of turnip leaves, in 30 g of sardines, in 120 g of dried almonds, in 3 liters of tap water or in 1 liter of mineral water with 300 mg / l calcium, and in an average portion of ricotta.

Finally, let’s not forget that it is essential for the health of our bones to reduce the intake of coffee and salt, which increase the urinary excretion of calcium, to consume a proper amount of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium, magnesium and fiber, which are capable to “alkalize” the blood and preserve the release of calcium from the bones in conditions of acidosis.

Article reproduced with the permission of the author.


Maria Assunta Coppola

Maria Assunta Coppola

Maria Assunta Coppola is a biologist and nutritionist. She works at the National Cancer Institute Pascale (Naples), dealing with the nutritional therapy of cancer patients. She is also the Director of the Consulting room for Cancer Prevention and Care at the Foundation Bartolo Longo in Pompeii. She has always been passionate about nutrition in the treatment and prevention of multifactorial diseases (cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer etc.). She participates as speaker to national level scientific conferences, and is the editor of scientific articles on medicinalive. Her postgraduate qualifications include a degree from the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery in Food Science and Clinic Nutrition, obtained at the Second University of Naples.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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