A column I wrote last May about whole milk dairy foods generated quite a response from a reader in Illinois:
“Wow. Telling people that high fat foods are good for their heart is a travesty. The one study you mentioned is greatly flawed. Hundreds of other studies show the exact opposite. You need to do some more research before recommending cheese or other high fat animal products.”
He then directed me to work by Dr. Dean Ornish and others before concluding, “Dairy is full of hormones and only intended for baby calves. How about recommending a plant based diet instead?” — Signed, Sam
Along with other nutrition professionals, I do recommend an eating pattern rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and other plant-based foods. Foods such as eggs, milk, fish, poultry and meat can also contribute vital nutrients to a healthful diet. Whether or not to include them in your own diet is a personal choice.
I do not believe I mentioned just one study in the column you referenced. I did say that “surprising new research shows no health detriment and possibly some health benefits in full fat as well as low fat milk, cheese and yogurt. Several studies have observed that the consumption of milk, cheese and yogurt — full fat as well as low fat — is associated with a higher quality diet as well as lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
One example: Low fat dairy foods are an important component of the well-researched DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) to lower blood pressure. In 2016, researchers tested a modified version of the DASH diet using whole milk, cheese and yogurt while still keeping calories in check. Surprisingly, the people who ate higher fat dairy food had as much benefit with lowered blood pressure (and no increase in cholesterol levels) as the people on lower fat dairy foods.
I have had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Ornish speak on a few occasions. He has good evidence from the 1980s to today that a very low-fat, mostly plant-based diet along with other lifestyle changes can reverse heart disease. (His diet does allow egg whites and non-fat milk and yogurt.) Ornish recently stated that “this is a work in progress … and as new science comes, we modify accordingly.” Case in point: He recently added fish oil to his diet recommendations.
In addition to diet, Dr. Ornish also emphasizes other important components of a healthy heart, including stress management, exercise, and having love and social support in our lives. I certainly agree with that.
As for hormones, these cell-signaling proteins are found in all living things, including plants, animals and humans. A man’s body produces 6000 times more estrogen and a woman produces 28,000 times more estrogen each day than they would get in a cup of milk, according to registered dietitian Monica Reinagel.
I repeat what registered dietitian nutritionist, Matt Pikosky, PhD, said in reference to our ever-changing views on nutrition: “We live in a largely inflexible world that wants straight “yes or no” answers. Yet sometimes good science says we can eat this and that … and still maintain optimal health. That seems to be what’s emerging in the case of dairy foods.”
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.