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Weight-Loss Ads Are Big Dairy’s Latest Way to Trick Consumers

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

This piece was published on Aug. 15, 2005, in AgWeek.

Every year, consumers waste billions of dollars on false weight-loss schemes. But the latest fad diet may be one of the most deceptive yet. “Burn more fat,” advises a glossy print ad for high-fat, high-calorie cheddar cheese. In another ad—a dairy-industry funded television commercial—a wide glass of milk magically shrinks to hourglass proportions.

As a physician, I know these “dairy diet” claims are not supported by the weight of scientific evidence, which has generally concluded that dairy products do not aid weight loss. Drinking more milk actually causes weight gain, according to one recent study.

I also know that this $200 million ad campaign is simply the latest attempt by the dairy industry to bamboozle consumers into believing that milk, yogurt, and even high-fat cheese products have some magical properties that make them a “must have” part of a healthy diet.

At their worst, some supporters of the dairy industry even resort to the kind of smear tactics employed against my organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in a recent opinion piece in this paper (“Dairy-Bashing Physicians Group,” July 18). The fact is, PCRM is financed mainly by donations from our membership, which includes such noted experts as Henry J. Heimlich, M.D., and more than 5,000 other physicians.

But such attacks are a distraction from the real issue. Here’s the truth: You don’t need dairy products. In fact, the scientific evidence suggests that your health may well improve if you avoid them.

One key danger is to your heart. Cheese, ice cream, milk, butter, and yogurt all contribute significant amounts of cholesterol and fat to the diet. Cheddar cheese, for example, derives about 70 percent of its calories from fat. And diets high in fat and saturated fat increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, the nation’s leading cause of death.

Milk is touted for preventing osteoporosis. But the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which followed more than 75,000 women for 12 years, showed no protective effect of increased milk consumption on fracture risk. In fact, increased intake of calcium from dairy products was associated with a higher fracture risk. An Australian study showed the same results.

Dairy consumption also appears to increase the risk of some cancers. At least six major studies have linked dairy consumption to prostate cancer, as distinguished Harvard nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett has noted. And several studies, including one published last year in the International Journal of Cancer, suggest that dairy intake increases the risk of ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately, kids are a favorite target market of the dairy industry. As a result, fluid milk is the single largest source of saturated fat in children’s diets, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Development. In addition to setting the stage for heart problems later in life, this high level of milk consumption may also increase the risk of childhood obesity.

In the June issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a study of dairy consumption among 12,000 children concluded that the more milk children drank, the more weight they gained. That was true even though the kids were drinking low-fat milk.

These disturbing facts aren’t usually featured in nationwide advertising campaigns, of course. After all, milk producers wouldn’t make much money by presenting both sides of the story. But dairy product consumption in the United States is among the highest in the world. Don’t consumers deserve to know the drawbacks of a product that forms such a large part of their diets?

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Dr. Barnard grew up in Fargo.


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