Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A health disaster waiting to happen

Research from Otago University, revealing the low consumption of milk by children, is really alarming. The research found that only 38% of kids are drinking milk daily - a statistic suggesting that debilitating osteoporosis could be in store for a generation of women. The problem is particularly acute for low socio-economic families.

The Otago researchers have compared the prices of milk and fizzy drinks. Milk has gone up dramatically over the last several years, but the cost of fizz has stayed static. I'm sure the researchers are quite right about the high price of milk discouraging parents from buying it. That doesn't seem to be the whole story, though. If you're on a low budget, you can still drink water rather than substitute fizz for milk. As the researchers note, fizz is marketed far more heavily than milk. Maybe advertising has contributed to changing people's tastes, and there has been little push back in the form of public health campaigning.

My parents were of the 'milk in schools' generation, so the health benefits of milk were drummed into them. They got it right in that respect - but they were also of a generation that ate far too much red meat and fat. I knew absolutely nothing about nutrition myself until I got gestational diabetes during my second pregnancy, at age 30. It was really a blessing - I was forced to learn a bunch of stuff that has benefited my kids' health, as well as my own. Until that time, I'd really just repeated the diet I'd had as a kid, but with a greater amount of convenience food, reflecting that fact that I was a busy working mum.

My guess is that there are a few factors at play in the milk situation. Price is one. Lack of nutritional knowledge, for some people at least, is probably another; particularly for those too young to be exposed to milk in schools, or other large scale public health campaigns. (And these days, public health campaigns have to compete with saturation-level advertising across myriad media - a whole different issue.) Third, I think it can be really hard to interest kids in healthy kai when they're used to an incredible world of choice, and having their tastebuds blasted with MSG and salt and artificial flavouring and every other bad thing you can name.

What do other THMers think?


Anita said...

Two half-thoughts.

1) I have lots of risk factors for osteoporosis so, despite being only mid-30s, I had a bone density scan which showed my bones are way dense (yay!). My GP says it'll be the amount of dairy I was given as a child, and she reckon it's set early in life and that it's much harder to increase your bone density later in life by adding dairy if it wasn't your body's experience while growing.

2) I think of dairy as a protein source, perhaps because I'm vegetarian and when eating out at thoughtless places it's often the only one. I wonder if the kiddies who are not getting as much milk as we did as kids are also not getting as much protein - that the shift in diet has actually removed a whole bunch of important nutrition elements and replaced them with simple carbs and fat.

katy said...

If the issue is osteoporosis then the problem isn't milk but calcium, though the correlation isn't absolutely clear with exercise, protein, vitamin D, sunlight etc also being important for bone development. Large numbers of people are allergic to milk and our cuisine is perhaps odd in the central role that it has, and I am not sure that non-trim milk is much healthier than fizzy drink! (I read somewhere that milk with high levels of fat is "illegal" in countries such as Finland because of the health risks associated). Calcium can be consumed via various green veges, grains, fruit, nuts and seeds and I believe that it is quite possible to have a balanced diet without consuming dairy products, and furthermore that limiting your intake of dairy is probably a good thing.

But that's just me ;)

Anna said...

I agree with you, Katy, on full-fat milk being dodgy. I've also noticed that, in the poor person suburb I live in, blue milk is incredibly popular - way more of it is stocked than trim, which you sometimes can't get. For whatever reason, people just don't seem to like trim. I take your point about other sources of calcium too, but I think you need quite a good knowledge of nutrition (and possibly a reasonable income) to go down that path successfully - so low-socioeconomic families may be less inclined to source calcium that way.

Milk certainly isn't the be all and end all, and a lot of our NZ dairy consuming habits probably come from the economic imperative of NZ having agriculture as its main industry for decades. Hence the fact that just about every recipe in the Edmonds is based on an artery-clogging mix of creamed butter and sugar...

Just consuming milk itself isn't the answer to all health woes (nor was it in the milk in schools days), but I think trim milk offers a reasonably accessible and pragmatic step in the right direction - or would, if people actually liked it!

Anna said...

Although that does bugger all for people with dairy allergies, as you rightly point out.

Hugh said...

That's funny, I was told by a vegan last week that milk was pasturised fecal matter and shouldn't be consumed by humans. (She would doubtless advocate alternative calcium sources)

Anna said...

What about breastmilk? Unpasteurised faecal matter?

katy said...

I agree that it is a matter of education; clearly the ideal is a balanced diet where you get your calcium from a variety of sources. A quick google claims that dried herbs are (apparently!) the #1 source of calcium, though obviously you are not going to look to this for your daily intake.. Cheese and milk is high in calcium but I really wonder if it is a good nutritional message that we should be looking to these for calcium rather than green veges, given the link between fat and heart disease. Also, I guess I am very aware that there are very high levels of lactose intolerance among Asian populations for example, so from a public health perspective we have to have different approaches for different groups (the Japanese diet is full of seaweed in various forms, for example, which is high in calcium).

Your Edmonds example reminded me of using the recipe in that book to make Ginger Crunch for my in-laws once. I remember their eyes goggling at the quantities of butter they saw me putting into it, and then how they cut themselves the tiniest little pieces of the finished product to eat.

Anyway, I guess my overall conclusion is that I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing if people are drinking less milk, but I do agree that there are broader issues around nutrition and access to good information that need to be addressed.

Lucy said...

That's funny, I was told by a vegan last week that milk was pasturised fecal matter and shouldn't be consumed by humans. (She would doubtless advocate alternative calcium sources)

I would bet large amounts of money that she is at much greater risk from faecal matter eating some raw veges (witness: the last big O157 outbreak in the US) than pasteurised milk. If the bacteria are dead, it's not a problem.

And, no, Anna, breast milk isn't the same because it doesn't run the same risk of getting faecal matter in it; whereas cows' udders are very close to the faecal-matter-expelling end, and most cow milk *does* get faecal matter in it. That's why we pasteurise.

Unfortunately, a lot of people (overseas; it's illegal to sell here) think it's more "natural" to drink unpasteurised milk. Which it is. Just like campylobacter, which is what you'll get if you eat or drink unpasteurised dairy products.

I think it's also important to remember that there are lots of dairy products, not just milk - kids may be drinking less milk, but what about yoghurt? Cheese? Ice-cream? I'd be interested to see how consumption of those has changed. Of course, cheese is high-fat and ice-cream is high fat and sugar, so more isn't necessarily good, but it'd still be an interesting comparison.

Anna said...

I was being facetious re breastmilk. :-)

I guess the 'problems' with other dairy products are either affordability (eg cheese) or that kids don't like them - but then milk is also expensive and lots of kids don't seem to like it much. I saw something on the news a while ago about a study of kids' school lunches - the researchers went through rubbish bins to see what kids were throwing out, and fruit and yoghurt were getting discarded all over the place. The yoghurt surprised me. I would have thought that being sweet, it would have appeal to kids - but then my daughter doesn't seem to like it much.

Most kids will have dairy food, ice cream, milkshakes or instant pudding, mind you. I wonder whether on balance they're good or bad - does the calcium outweigh the fat and sugar?

M-H said...

Katy, you'd have to eat an awful lot of green veg to get the same amount of usable calcium that you can get from a glass of trim milk. If you look at older Asian people who have had very little calcium in their diets (ie no dairy) you will notice that they have much more bowed legs and bent spines than people of the same age in our countries.

Moderation in food sources as well as everything else has kept me extremely healthy into my late 50s, and I expect to go on eating as widely and as well as I do for many more years yet. I cook most things from scratch and will eat almost anything except swede turnip and eggplant, which I loathe. I don't think I'm missing out on much by avoiding them. I eat very little sugar, drink almost no alcohol, and watch the salt and fat/oil content of what I eat. Best of all, I really love food and have passed this on to my three adult kids, who all enjoy cooking and eat well too. I feel sorry for kids whose parents don't enjoy cooking and eating good food, and yes, it probably is a disaster waiting to happen, sadly.

Anonymous said...

There are two issues: Getting calcium in the diet, and retaining it in the body.
With high-protein dairy milk, calcium is excreted in urine. So even though there's more calcium in milk than in vege sources, more of it is retained in the body.
The countries (Sweden, Finland and US) that consume the most dairy (and other animal products) actually have the highest rates of osteoporosis. Compared to Asian countries that consume very little (although that may be changing).
The best way to combat/prevent osteoporosis is a diet high in fruit and veg.

Hugh said...

I know I keep banging this drum, but I am very sceptical about the effect a lack of 'education' has on people's decisions, and even more sceptical about the degree that more/better 'education' would have.

I think it's actually pretty patronising to say that people don't realise that milk is better for them than soft drink.

I think that the rising cost of milk (and dairy products in general) is almost certainly the biggest issue here.

tussock said...

All rubbish, of course. The only way to strong bones is to regularly put a few shock stress through them, like by doing a couple of star jumps every morning.

Want to lose bone calcium? Go play in microgravity for a few weeks. Want to gain it? Lift weights or try being just slightly more athletic than a potato. Run for the paper or something.

Please ignore the dairy industry advertising to the contrary, even when it does find it's way into the medical journals. It is essentially impossible to get less calcium in your diet than you're supposed to.

Anita said...


Shock stress or weight bearing exercise? I thought walking to work carrying a bag/backpack was better for retaining bone calcium than short periods of stress.