Milk. Whether from a bottle or breast, the white stuff featured at all of our launch parties on planet Earth.
The human race has been guzzling milk since 8000 BC. Meat-eating animals produced milk with an unpalatable flavour, so our ancestors plumped for milk deliveries courtesy of their grass-fed friends (cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, buffalos, camels, yaks yada yada yada).
Cow’s milk, with its mild, winsome flavour emerged as the most popular: #DairyQueen. However, in recent years, its #LegenDairy reputation has been sullied as a consequence of compelling reports on the detrimental effects of dairy on health.
Like our good selves, cows gestate for nine months and begin to lactate once baba calf pops out. Historically, dairy farmers orchestrated a seasonal reproductive cycle, with calving season scheduled to coincide with the fresh, dewy grass of Spring in order to guarantee an ample supply of nutritious milk.
The above contrasts starkly to the practices that have infiltrated dairy farming in recent years. Animal cruelty is beyond the scope of this (relatively) short post so I’ll leave it aside for now.
Today, cows are grain-fed, despite their digestive tracts being designed for grass. In broad strokes, this sets in train a vicious cycle of inflammation in the cow’s stomach which leads to the development of ulcers and overgrowth of certain bacteria. Knee-jerk prescriptions for antibiotics are then issued to counteract the process.
In addition, cows are impregnated as soon as possible after their most recent delivery, minimising time between pregnancies in order to ‘maximise’ milk production. The paradox is that milk quantity actually wanes. Episodes of mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands and udder, usually due to infection) are almost continuous and the cow’s overall immunity is compromised.
Furthermore, levels of hormones and growth factors in milk are increased, not that they were ever good for us at any level. The worrisome consequences of ingesting these chemicals form the thrust of the argument that dairy is cancer-promoting.
“There’s no good evidence to support avoiding all dairy with the aim of reducing cancer risk,” Martin Ledwick at Cancer Research UK has stated. “It isn’t known if avoiding dairy plays a role in stopping cancer coming back.”
I concede that there is indeed no robust published evidence base for dairy as a promoter of cancer. There rarely exists an evidence base for anti-inflammatory diets and lifestyle interventions. Practicalities of study design, logistics of execution, cost and lack of pharmaceutical and governmental interest and sponsorship – not to mention vested interests – being among the multitude of reasons.
However, after reviewing the information available, good and bad, I am convinced that we could all benefit from at least drastically paring back our consumption of all things dairy.
Professor Jane Plant, a scientist who battled breast cancer from her diagnosis in 1987* published her book ‘Beat Cancer’ a few years ago after drawing on her experience of life as a geochemist in China, where the breast cancer rate was disproportionately low. In Ireland, approximately one in ten women can expect to develop breast cancer over the course of their lives. This is broadly in line with statistics from other Western countries with similar diets and lifestyles. When Plant undertook her research after her diagnosis, the rate in China was c. 1 in 100,000 women. Yet for those who migrated to Western countries, the rates became commensurate with those of indigenous women. (Rates have appreciably increased in China since then. Their adopted ‘foreign’ diets and lifestyles likely feature highly among the causative factors.) She believed that diet and lifestyle issues were at the root of roughly one-third of cancers.
(*Jane sadly passed away as the result of a blood clot in March 2016, having battled several recurrences of her cancer.)
Refreshingly, Plant was not dismissive of conventional cancer treatment which she described as “wonderful”. She underwent a mastectomy as well as chemo and radiotherapy. A woman of my own heart, she was also an advocate of regular exercise and stress-reduction techniques as part of a holistic approach to health optimisation.
Plant by name, and latterly #PlantBased by nature, Jane made the link between dairy and other animal products and breast cancer. In the early 1980s China’s diet was plant-based before #PlantBased was even a thing. The Chinese did not even have a dairy industry at the time!
“Milk is good for calves – but not for us,” claimed Prof. Plant. “There is evidence now that the growth factors and hormones it contains are not just risky for breast cancer, but also for other hormone-related cancers, of the prostate, testicles and ovary.”
Her book was co-written by Prof. Mustafa Djamgoz (Professor of Cancer Biology at Imperial College London where Jane Plant was a Professor of Geochemistry) and explores the burgeoning science of epigenetics, which looks at how genes behave, their regulatory mechanisms and the interplay of genes and environment. The crux is that cancer-promoting genes can be switched on and off depending on what’s circulating in our bodies at the time. What we eat can impact at a genetic level so #LetFoodBeThyMedicine as Hippocrates has been harping on about since before Jesus was born.
Cancer cells are exquisitely sensitive to growth factors – Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) and Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) – being the most discussed ones in cow’s milk and hormones. This is precisely why hormone-blocking medication works so well for certain types of cancer. Growth factors are produced by our own bodies and are vital to stimulate our own cells to grow healthily. The problems start when our cells find themselves mooching about in an environment of abnormally elevated levels. Dysregulated cellular growth can ensue. Cornell University’s esteemed Prof. Colin Campbell has argued that cow’s milk should be viewed as being oestrogen’s equal in the carcinogenic stakes.
Their advice is to eschew dairy products (milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt) altogether and limit fresh meat, fish, shellfish, eggs and coffee, eat organic produce and go as unprocessed and plant-based as possible.
So how shall we proceed to milk it then if we eliminate the holy cow from the frame?
Milk and its ilk now forcibly occupy a sizeable tranche of our supermarket aisles. There are hundreds of varieties. Shape.com reports that there are “13 types of milk that do your body good”. 13, eh? Unlucky for some and confusing for the overwhelming majority of us… A choice that once required almost no thought has become a minefield. God be with the days when I had to dither between full and low fat only.
What, then, is the Milky Way forward when freighted with the milk menu? My advice is to try as many non-dairy milk options as you can and you’ll surely strike gold. Have a look at this to whet your appetite:
As always, queries welcome and if you’d like to read more, please visit skipthescript.com
P.S. There are many more points on dairy that are pertinent to health which I’ve had to forget about in the interests of brevity! Another day’s work…