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Dairy: Blunder Tonic


We’ve all seen the ads touting dairy as a weight-loss aid. Every granola bar, breakfast cereal and block of cheese now brags about it. Welcome to yet another entertaining quarter in the ongoing Statistics Game. Dairy is a big topic and there are several studies we’re going to take a look at today. And by take a look, I mean tear apart.

As far as I’m concerned, “da-iry” hasn’t done anything great with the place (though the ad campaigns are always cute). The aliens can have it. We’d all be a lot better off without the so-called Wonder Tonic – and we’d lose weight a lot faster.

It is true that calcium plays a role in fat metabolism (a small role – more on that in a moment). But it’s also true that calories play a role in getting fat. Reducing calories from any source is going to help you lose weight much more effectively than simply drinking milk instead of, say, soda or juice. For one thing, milk has almost as much sugar as a glass of Coke (yes – check the labels [1]). For another, milk is hardly nature’s perfect food for humans. Cow milk is nature’s perfect food for…cows. I realize that’s controversial, but it’s true. And relying on calcium for your weight-loss goals is like relying on vitamin C-enhanced Seven Up for your antioxidant needs.

I love a good slice of cheddar as much as the next guy and gal, but there’s no way any responsible health care practitioner should ever recommend making dairy a part of a healthy diet, much less a weight-loss plan. Hey, if you’re living on potato chips and pizza, a glass of milk might be a step up. I set the bar a little higher, and I hope you do, too.

Dairy, in limited amounts, isn’t something I worry too much about. I don’t think it’s an ideal human food, especially since most of us lack the enzyme needed to digest it and essentially force ourselves to become accustomed to the stuff. But you could do worse than the occasional dollop of cottage cheese or scoop of sugar-free yogurt, especially if you favor organic dairy. (Which, by the way, you should: regular dairy is typically full of antibiotics, hormones, and contaminants like pus. Yum.)

Enter dubious study #1.

Though Major Moo (the dairy industry) paid for six clinical studies – yes, they funded their own studies – the main one is what I’m calling the Tennessee Two Pounder. The University of Tennessee loves Major Moo, and Major Moo loves T. U. The lead researcher in the study was astounded by the amazing benefits of dairy, which he discovered after being paid millions of dollars conducting the study. For a few million, I can be amazed by just about anything, but I still wouldn’t be amazed by the results he got: a mere two pounds on the “it’s not a dairy diet” dairy diet.

When this whole Major Moo campaign started last year, I was pretty suspicious. I don’t conduct my own studies of my supplement line for a reason: it’s unethical and no matter how honest a businessperson might be, you simply can’t help looking for more than might be there. Two pounds is not amazing. It is not impressive. You can lose two pounds by skipping dinner for two nights (really).

Enter lawsuit.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a group of 5,000+ docs and 100,000 other health-minded folks) has sued Major Moo this fall for what it says are grossly misleading ads. Major Moo spent over $200 million on six clinical trials and a slew of ads recommending 24 ounces of milk every 24 hours. Though Major Moo is insistent that they’re not pushing a “dairy diet”, the PCRM says the ads are misleading, that plenty of people have actually gained weight (that part’s true) by following the 24/24 recommendation, and the actual studies are suspect, anyway.

Note: PCRM promotes vegetarianism – I don’t – but I think they’re right on the money with this issue.

Enter dubious study #2.

It just gets better. Another dairy-funded study says that mice consuming dairy in lieu of other foods lost weight faster. That makes sense, but it’s not because dairy is a magic food. Dairy is what I call a “dense” nutritional food. It’s easier to cut calories if you’re satisfied, and dairy is a rich food. However, this particular study left me saying “Whaaaa?” The report on the study carefully explained the mice, the milk, the parameters. And then, at the end, the researchers (remember, funded by Major Moo) announce that low fat milk is the best bet for losing weight. The entire study focused on calcium’s role in weight loss, and the conclusion was about something else entirely.

This kind of bait-and-switch is a big problem in the world of studies. Hey, maybe low-fat milk is better (I personally don’t think so, because it is higher in sugar and is more refined than regular milk). But the study’s conclusions were illogical and misleading.

Enter dubious study #3.

A retrospective study in Seattle found that people who consumed higher levels of calcium gained less weight as they aged than people who didn’t eat much calcium: 10 pounds versus 15 pounds. Fine. I personally wouldn’t brag about my product causing only slightly less weight gain, but that’s me. Here’s what gets me: after accounting for exercise, diet and lifestyle habits, the actual role of calcium in this number was only 3%. Three percent. That means 97% of the weight gain was related to everything but calcium.

I do have a degree in biology. I’ve spent 25 years researching and developing health supplements. The statistical significance standard of 15% is right up there with the Hippocratic Oath. 3% is not significant. It is not even meaningful. So I’m perplexed at this quote from a doctor analyzing the study:

“While calories consumed, exercise and metabolism account for 97 percent of the fluctuations in body weight, calcium explains about a 3 percent variability of body weight in U.S. adults,” said Robert P. Heaney [2], who studies the effects of calcium at Creighton University in Nebraska. “Three percent isn’t bad.”

He’s right; three percent isn’t bad. It’s just pointless.

The lessons?

1) Yes, calcium helps with fat metabolism – a bit. Other things – like cutting calories – work better and retrain the body more effectively.

2) Lots of foods and supplements have calcium. Milk has a lot, but it also has a lot of sugar and calories. It often comes loaded with antibiotics, hormones and contaminants. It’s not an ideal food for most humans [3].

3) Look for significant changes when trusting a new study.

4) Don’t immediately trust new studies…when the outcome benefits whoever paid for them.

[tags] dairy, does milk help weight loss, calcium, fat loss [/tags]