Milk and Dairy – Do We Need It?
Plenty of my Yoga friends are vegans. They avoid eating meat, and they also abstain from consuming all animal products like dairy and eggs. Most have made that choice primarily for ethical reasons, citing the first of the yamas. Many fight for the humane treatment of animals, and they put their ideals into practice when it comes to protecting the earth from greenhouse gases.
I respect their stance, and these considerations factor into my own decision to be a vegetarian, but I believe they are mistaken when it comes to the assumption that their choice not to ingest dairy products is “yogic” – that partaking of animal products violates the yama of ahimsa. The wise gurus from centuries ago didn’t consider drinking milk or eating butter and ghee a contradiction to the precept of non-violence. In fact, they recommended dairy.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1:62 (The most conducive foods for the yogi are) good grains, wheat, rice, barley,milk, ghee, brown sugar, sugar candy, honey, dry ginger, patola fruit (species of cucumber), five vegetables, mung and such pulses, and pure water.
Gheranda Samhita V:27-28 A Yogi should eat fresh butter, ghee, milk, sugar, sugarcane, jaggery, ripe plantain, coconuts, pomegranates, grapes, lavali, Dhatri, juice which is not sour, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, Paurusa, rose apple, Jambala, Haritaki, and dates.
Modern dogma also supports the consumption of dairy products. The USDA food pyramid advises everyone over the age of 9 to take in 3 servings of dairy (milk, cheese, or yogurt) daily. For years, doctors and dietitians have been recommending daily dairy intake to meet the proposed calcium requirement for healthy bones.
The problem is that there is little real evidence that milk and dairy builds healthy bones, or that it prevents osteoporosis and keeps bones from breaking.
The prestigious journal, Pediatrics, published a study in 2005 that reviewed all of the research to date on dairy and bone health in children and young adults. Of the 37 studies of dairy or un-supplemented dietary calcium, 27 of them found no relationship between dairy or dietary calcium intake and measure of bone health. In the remaining reports, effects were positive but small and three of those were difficult to interpret due to the fortification of milk with Vitamin D, a nutrient arguably more important than calcium in bone health1. Their conclusion:
“Scant evidence supports nutrition guidelines focused specifically on increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.”
The Harvard School of Public Health performed a prospective study observing the daily dairy intake and bone health of nearly 80,000 women for 12 years.2 The authors concluded:
“We found no evidence that higher intakes of milk or calcium from food sources reduce fracture incidence.”
Beyond not protecting bones, the work of the Harvard team has also suggested that:
- Higher levels of dairy products in the diet increases the risk in men for developing Parkinson’s disease, a severe neurodegenerative disease of the brain. 3
- Aggressive, deadly forms of prostate cancer also appear to be more common in men who consume high levels of calcium (more than 1500 mg daily) from combinations of dairy products and calcium supplements. 4
- Teenagers who consume lots of dairy are more likely to develop acne. The researchers suggested that increased acne is due to hormones and other bioactive molecules found in the milk products. 5
A European group is backing up the Harvard one. More than 29,000 people in five countries were observed for more than 8 years.6 Their conclusion:
“In a prospective study of the elderly, diet, including consumption of dairy products, alcohol and vitamin D, did not appear to play a major role in hip fracture incidence. There is however, weak and statistically non-significant evidence that vegetable and fish consumption and intake of polyunsaturated lipids may have a beneficial, whereas saturated lipid intake a detrimental effect.”
A Swiss study, too, performed a meta-analysis of cohort studies in middle aged or older men and women. The researchers examined and pooled data from six previous studies looking at a total of 195,102 women and 75,149 men.7 They found that drinking milk and eating dairy didn’t protect the participants against broken bones.
“there was no overall association between milk intake and hip fracture in women but more data are needed in men.”
In fact, there are more broken bones from osteoporosis within countries consuming the most dairy, calcium, and animal protein. Bones primarily need weight-bearing exercise and natural vitamin D from 10 minutes of daily sun exposure to the face, hands and arms (without sunscreen). When other fundamental needs of our bones are being met, such as those for natural vitamin D from the sun, exercise, lots of fruits and veggies, and adequate protein with limited or no animal-derived protein, then approximately 500 mg of calcium per day from plant sources is likely adequate. 8
Nondairy sources of calcium include (but are not limited to):
- Broccoli (1 cup – 180 mg)
- Arugala (1 cup – 125 mg)
- Acorn squash (1 cup – 90 mg)
- Figs, dried (1 cup – 300 mg)
- Sesame seeds (1 oz – 280 mg)
- Almonds (1 oz – 80 mg)
- Pinto beans (1 cup cooked – 80 mg)
- Black beans (1 cup cooked – 50 mg)
If you’re still not convinced, please have a look at the following links – one is to Harvard’s School of Public Health website, one is to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website, and the latter two to the website one of my favorite doctors, John McDougall, M.D.
- The Nutrition Source: Calcium and Milk, the Bottom Line. Harvard School of Public Health.
- Health Concerns About Dairy Products. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
- When Friends Ask: “Why Don’t You Drink Milk?” McDougall Newsletter Volume 6, No. 3, March 2007.
- When Friends Ask: “Where Do You Get Your Calcium?” McDougall Newsletter Volume 6, No. 2, February 2007.
The writings of the ancient teachers support this latest science. A further look at the two of the classic texts reveals their wisdom.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:14 Food containing milk and ghee is recommended for the initial phase of practice. The adoption of such a rule is unnecessary after one’s practice is established.
Siva Samhita 3:50 At the time of practice, one should first eat milk and ghee. Then once the practice is established, this rule need not be observed.
So, the bottom line is that we don’t NEED to drink milk or eat dairy products – not from a medical perspective or from a yogic one. A well planned and executed vegan diet, one without any milk or dairy at all, will keep people and their bones just as healthy as an omnivore one.
I’m not vegan. I occasionally have low-fat yogurt on my morning fruit or the rare treat of a cheesy dish. I wouldn’t think of drinking a glass of milk every day, but completely excluding all dairy doesn’t sit well with me either. Dairy provides a range of nutrients, and variety in a diet is important.
The key is in the amount. It’s a point I believe the ancient teachers were trying to make. We don’t need milk products at all – certainly not every day (or three times a day!) – but a touch of organic dairy here and there can be an important contribution to a well-balanced and wholesome diet.
1. Lanou AJ, Berkow SE, Barnard ND. Calcium, dairy products, and bone health in children and young adults: a reevaluation of the evidence. Pediatrics. 2005 Mar;115(3):736-43.
2. Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health. 1997 Jun;87(6):992-7.
3. Chen H, Zhang SM, Hernán MA, Willett WC, Ascherio A. Diet and Parkinson’s disease: a potential role of dairy products in men. Ann Neurol. 2002 Dec;52(6):793-801.
4. Giovannucci E, Liu Y, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. A prospective study of calcium intake and incident and fatal prostate cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2006 Feb;15(2):203-10.
5. Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Danby FW, Frazier AL, Willett WC, Holmes MD. High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Feb;52(2):207-14.
6. Benetou V et al. Diet and hip fractures among elderly Europeans in the EPIC cohort.
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jan;65(1):132-9. Epub 2010 Oct 13.
7. Bischoff-Ferrari HA et al. Milk intake and risk of hip fracture in men and women: A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. J Bone Miner Res. 2010 Oct 14.
8. Lanou AJ. Should dairy be recommended as part of a healthy vegetarian diet? Counterpoint. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1638S-1642S.