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“My instinct tells me that nonfat dairy is a processed food that has never been available to long lived peoples. Why should we need it? ...I switched from low fat to whole dairy (organic), and increased grass fed meat intake last year…and my cholesterol [profile improved significantly].” Wade R. Smith, MD, orthopedic surgeon, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Organic Whole Milk Is Better than Conventional Skim or Whole Milk, Studies Find

It May Help to Keep Us Healthy—and Lean

I never thought I’d be writing about an organic food. I always thought that, for most people, the benefit was outweighed by the additional cost.

I started life drinking whole milk and switched to skimmed when doctors began worrying about saturated fat and cholesterol (my father was a medical doctor and my mother a registered nurse). Except for a brief dalliance with raw whole milk—Carol and my father nixed that because of possible contamination—I’ve been drinking nonfat milk ever since. And I’m now on the verge of coming full circle and switching to organic whole milk and yogurt. (The milk discussed here is, of course, pasteurized.) 

My e-mail friend Wade Smith, an orthopedic surgeon who followed my lead and had his hip replaced via the anterior approach, prompted my reappraisal of full-fat organic milk and yogurt.

“There seems to be some scientific upheaval occurring in regards to diet, cardiovascular health, and fat: a large-scale, nationwide study showed that whole, organic milk was cardio protective compared to non-organic milk,” Wade wrote. “For many years (despite following a low fat diet) I have wondered from a scientific and philosophic perspective why we feel that foods denatured of fat (low fat products), and sometimes with added sugar or added artificial oils, were necessary for health and longevity—especially since no humans could eat them prior to 1950!”

Like Wade, it had occurred to me that non-fat milk and yogurt are essentially processed foods—but very smart people considered it an improvement on nature in modern times. The new study documents why removing milk fat—especially organic—may have been an example of good intentions gone awry. Based on 378 samples of organic and conventional milk from 7 regions collected over 18 months, researchers found that organic whole milk contains substantially more of some (not all) of the fatty acids that contribute to cardiovascular health.

The study (PLoS One, December 9, 2013) came about in no small measure due to the financial interest and inquisitiveness of George Siemen, chief executive of Organic Valley, a farm cooperative that sells organic dairy products. “Organics have lacked a science base,” Siemen told The New York Times. “I just wanted to know.” Putting their products on the line, Organic Valley helped fund a nationwide examination of independent milk-processing companies by Dr. Charles M. Benbrook and his team of researchers at Washington University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Organic Valley is a corporate sponsor of Dr. Benbrook’s program at Washington State and provided $45,000 for an independent laboratory to analyze the fatty acids in organic and conventional dairy products. As you’ll see, the results were impressive—and credible.

Benbrook and his team found that whole milk from organic diaries—which largely rely on pasture and forage-based feeding—had a better balance of omega 6 and 3 fatty acids than conventional milk.  Fatty acid balance is believed by many to contribute significantly to cardiovascular health.

For a dairy product to be labeled organic, dairy cows must spend a specified amount of time in the pasture, eating plants high in omega-3s; conventional milk comes from cows fed mostly corn, which is high in omega-6s. There are exceptions, of course, because some conventional dairy cows are also pasture fed at times.

As we have noted here before, intake of omega-6 fatty acids has dramatically increased over the last century, while omega-3 intake has fallen. Omega-6 to omega-3 ratios have risen to nutritionally undesirable 10 or more compared to a more desirable 3 or less, according to the researchers. “Averaging over 12 months, organic milk contained 25% less omega-6 fatty acids and 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk,” Benbrook et al reported. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in organic milk was 2.28, much lower than the 5.77 ratio in conventional milk. Nonfat milk, of course, has no fat and therefore no ratio.

Omega-3 is especially high in fish and flaxseed, while omega-6 is plentiful in corn and other vegetable oils found in processed foods, such as potato chips.

“All milk is healthy and good for people,” Dr. Benbrook told The Times, “but organic milk is better, because it has a more favorable balance of these fatty acids.” Studies show than an excess of omega-6s is associated with many ills, he explained. Benbrook observed that a shift to organic whole milk—and raising consumption from the currently recommended three servings a day to 4.5—would significantly improve the 6:3 ratio.

There is broad agreement that omega-3 fatty acids offer numerous health benefits. The United States department of Agriculture urged people to eat more fish—which are high in omega-3s—for the first time in its 2010 dietary guidelines.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential, but experts disagree on the upper limit for omega-6s, which are found primarily in vegetable oils such as corn and soybean oil. Omega-6 fats often end up in fried and processed foods.

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says people should try to eat more of both essential fatty acids. (Not in fried or processed foods.) The ratio is “irrelevant,” he told The Times. Until we know more, he suggests keeping milk intake low to moderate, as in the Mediterranean diet. Importantly, Willett has recently questioned the scientific basis for recommending reduced-fat dairy products.

Other high-profile experts agree with Willett that the ratio doesn’t matter. They, however, still recommend that processed and fried foods be avoided.

Artemis P. Simopoulos, MD, a well-known expert on nutritional fats, has found that a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is beneficial and reduces the risk of many of the chronic diseases. (Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Volume 56, Issue 8, Pages 365-379)

Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, added that high levels of omega-6 have been shown to interfere with omega-3s in animal studies.    

In further support, Dr. Donald R. Davis, a co-author of the Benbrook study, pointed out that many now question the assumption that the saturated fat in whole milk increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. As this was being written a meta-analysis by Cambridge and Harvard Universities of 72 studies with 600,000 participants found no evidence that saturated fat is associated with a greater risk of heart disease (March 17, 2014, Annals of Internal Medicine). The new emphasis seems to be on eating a balanced diet of real foods, whole foods—and avoiding highly processed foods. (More about this next month.)

Dr. Hibbeln, who was not involved is in the Benbrook study, called it “a very good piece of work.” He cautioned, however, that the mix of omega-3s in milk is different from that in fish. The simple ratio “is not as meaningful as we would like it to be,” he told the New York Times. Still, he endorsed the organic milk recommendation. “You’re heading in the right direction,” he said.

The study findings on the omega-3 fats in organic milk were constructive: The individual omega-3 fatty acid concentrations were meaningfully higher in organic than in conventional milk—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) by 60%, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) 32%, and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) 19%--but substantially different than in fish. Based on recommended servings of dairy products and seafoods, dairy products supply far more alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) than seafood, about one-third as much eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and slightly more docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), but negligible docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). That’s good, but perhaps not as good as it sounds.

Most of the evidence indicates that the health benefits come mainly from EPA, DPA, and DHA, the long-chain fatty acids found in fatty fish—DHA being distinctive to fish. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—also found in flaxseed and to a lesser extent in canola oil, olive oil, walnuts, and other nuts, as well as trace amounts in green leafy vegetables—is converted by the body to EPA, DPA, and DHA. The problem is that humans can only convert a small fraction of ALA to the more beneficial omega-3s. A mitigating factor is that omega-6 fatty acids compete with ALA for the enzymes used in the conversions. That means lowering the omega-6/omega-3 ratio—by cutting back on processed and fried foods—augments the conversion of ALA to the more beneficial long-chain omega-3 fats.

As Dr. Hibbeln says, switching to organic whole milk is a step in the right direction. Organic whole milk and fish, in moderation, seem to complement one another.

Get Lean with Whole Milk!

The fat in whole milk adds calories and will make you fat, right? Maybe not.

NPR reported on February 12, 2014, that whole milk keeps us lean. Full-fat dairy is better than nonfat for our waistlines.

One study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, found that middle-aged men who consumed high-fat milk, butter and cream were significantly less likely to become obese over a period of 12 months compared to men who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy.

In addition, a meta-analysis of 16 observational studies in another study, reported in the European Journal of Nutrition, found that high-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of obesity.

“We continue to see more and more data coming out [finding that] consumption of whole dairy is associated with reduced body fat,” Greg Miller, executive vice president of the National Dairy Council, told NPR.

This counterintuitive finding appears to also hold true for children. A study of children published last year in the Archives of Diseases in Children, a sister publication of the British Medical Journal, concluded that low-fat milk was associated with more weight gain over time. “It really surprised us,” study author Mark DeBoer, a pediatrician at the University of Virginia, told NPR.

It may simply be that whole dairy is more satisfying and filling than nonfat—or as Greg Miller told NPR, “There may be bioactive substances in milk fat that may be altering our metabolism in a way that helps us utilize fat and burn it for energy, rather than storing it in our bodies.”

It sounds almost too good to be true, but that’s what the new research is telling us. Keep in mind that observational studies prove association, not causation.

*  *  *

A consultation client I talked with while writing this article told me that his endocrinologist recommended whole milk over nonfat. The scientific upheaval that Wade Smith talks about is showing up all over. 

While I’ve been drinking milk my entire life--it agrees with me and I enjoy it--I understand that milk is not essential to a healthy diet. Adults in many countries drink little or none—Carol doesn’t drink milk.

Now, it seems that I can enjoy the creaminess of whole milk without putting my health on the line. The new studies say it won’t hurt me—and may even make me leaner and healthier.

A switch to full-fat or perhaps 2% organic dairy in moderation—as part of a balanced diet of whole foods—is something to consider for those actively striving to become and stay lean and healthy.

I'm going to try it for a while and see what happens. My next blood test for cholesterol and omega-3 fatty acids will be a good indication.

[See "Latest Results from Cooper Clinic" http://www.cbass.com/ClarenceBassCooperClinic14.htm  and  "About HDL--"Good Cholesterol"  http://www.cbass.com/HDLCholesterol.htm ]

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