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Seeking the whole story on whole milk


Kathy Kolasa


Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Q: I feel guilty every time I drink whole milk. Is it really that bad for me? — G.K., Greenville

A: First, a shout-out to Gretchen Wilson, the new Pitt County Schools Child Nutrition director. I shared a delightful lunch with her recently, and she is filled with great ideas and enthusiasm to ensure each child and teen in our public schools has healthy, tasty and affordable food and drinks. It’s so much easier to learn and perform in school and play when eating healthy. Welcome home, Gretchen.

By the way, I learned I misquoted my husband in my article about the Asian Food Pyramid (Aug. 8). His actually said that the heat of the food “melted his filling” — not his molars.

You probably are seeing ads for and more full-fat dairy products on the grocery shelves. I asked Radhi Kothadia, a third-year medical student at ECU, to tell you what she learned about drinking whole milk.

Nutrition is an evolving field, which sometimes makes it hard for us to know exactly what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Sometimes, new research findings conflict with old beliefs. In the past, whole milk has been scrutinized because of its high saturated fatty acid content. Diets high in saturated fats found in animal foods have been linked to poor heart health, obesity and diabetes. This may be one reason there has been a global increase in the number of people adopting vegan, plant-based and dairy-free diets.

Ways of eating that were considered trendy fads are now a way of life for millions around the world. There have been many conversations about the negative role that whole milk and other full-fat dairy products may play in adult health. However, a few recent studies suggest that whole milk might have some benefits we never knew about, so maybe you shouldn’t be feeling guilty after all.

Drinking full-fat dairy products provides you with essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, vitamin K and calcium. Vitamin D and calcium help us maintain healthy bones and teeth, while vitamin K helps us form blood clots and prevent excessive bleeding if we get hurt. These vitamins are found in the fat of milk. In fat-free milk, the vitamins are added back in equal quantities. One cup of 1 percent milk, 2 percent milk and whole milk all contain 8 grams of protein, 115-124 units of vitamin D, and 30 percent calcium. So, what’s the difference? One glass of whole milk contains the most fat at 8 grams.

Using low-fat dairy products has been recommended to reduce a person’s risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, but some new studies show that the fatty content of whole milk may protect our heart in the same way. Many people take medications to control their blood pressure, but supplementing those medicines with dairy products might give them some added protection. It’s not known for sure that it works nor how much full-fat dairy you would need to consume to get that benefit.

Type 2 diabetes is a disorder that initially occurs when the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, a hormone that helps us maintain our blood sugar. If your body stops responding to insulin, it will initially begin producing larger amounts of insulin, which can then decrease your ability to burn body fat and sometimes can even cause your blood sugar to drop too much. If you have a family history of diabetes or are worried about your blood sugar, full-fat milk, yogurt and cheese may be foods you want to avoid. Researchers in 2016 found a possible link between intake of full-fat dairy products and a new diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. But more research is needed to understand what’s going on.

Some parents wonder whether they should be feeding their children whole milk or lesser-fat milk. In fact, many school lunch programs only provide low-fat, hoping to help children reduce their risk for obesity. Pitt County Schools provides fat-free white, chocolate and strawberry, and 1 percent white milk. But there is some emerging research that shows whole milk actually protects young children from childhood obesity. One theory is that whole milk keeps kids full longer and keeps them from eating extra high-calorie snacks. Many kids enjoy milk, but it’s important not to let them drink too much because it may replace iron-rich foods and lead to iron deficiency anemia. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 16-24 ounces of milk per day for toddlers.

So with all of this information, what should you do? Like many things in life, moderation is key. Don’t go eating tubs of ice cream or plopping whipped cream on your breakfast every morning, but whole milk, yogurt and cheese are OK to eat — in moderation. Even if the scientists confirm that full-fat dairy products protect some of us from various health issues, the calories and sugar content still count. If you choose to consume whole milk products instead of low-fat, remember to stay within your calorie budget. The controversy about whole milk versus low-fat milk is far from settled, so stay tuned for further studies. Talk with your family doctor or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist about what is right for you.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.


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