Does Dairy Have a Place in the American Diet?

I’ll preface this post with this:  I eat dairy.  Not a lot, but I definitely eat it.  I’ll also say that I could write a book on this topic, and this post doesn’t encompass nearly everything that is to be said about the amount of dairy in the American diet.

If you’re like me, you eat dairy because you love a good stinky cheese, or the nostalgia of a big ice cream cone on a hot summer night.  This post has nothing to do with taking that away from you.  It’s more about shedding light on the connection between policy and health (or lack there of), and where the dietary recommendation for “3 Servings of Dairy a Day” really came from, along with evidence that proves that we don’t really need that.  This is a paper I recently wrote for grad school, so it’s a little bit more formal than other posts, an includes a list of references at the bottom.  Enjoy!

Does Dairy Have a Place in the American Diet?

The current United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommendations for dairy products promotes persons over 9 years of age to consume three servings of low fat or fat free dairy per day.  According to this recommendation, the calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, and protein found in milk may reduce the risk of osteoporosis and consumption has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes [1].  Ironically, the research to support these claims, and the National Dairy Council 3-Every-Day (promoting 3 servings of dairy per day) campaign is all part of a marketing package funded by the government through the dairy check-off program to reduce milk surpluses [2,3].   Since 1995, the government has put over 5.3 billion dollars towards subsidizing the dairy industry alone [4].  The American governments’ support for the dairy industry has made me question how dairy came to be such a prominent, and according to the USDA, necessary part of the American diet, and discover the real affects it has had on our health.

Pre-Agricultural Diets

No humans who lived before 10,000 years ago had any domesticated animals, and therefore had no dairy foods (besides mothers milk) in their diet.  Pre-agriculture, people obtained their calcium primarily from plant foods, and wild game, and their calcium intake is estimated to be about twice of what we consume today.  Even without the presence of dairy in their diet, their skeletal mass has been shown to exceed ours.  This Late Paleolithic Era from 35,000 to 20,000 years before the present is likely the last time period in which homo sapiens interacted with their bioenvironmental circumstances for which they had been originally selected.  For this reason, their nutritional and exercise patterns of that time constitute natural paradigms which are still relevant today [5].

As human evolution continued, Native Americans (precontact) in the Northeast region of North America obtained most of their food through hunting and gathering, and some seasonal vegetable cultivation.  The hot and cold seasons lead to some interesting cyclical dietary patterns, and kept them in constant motion.  April, May, September, and October allowed for the greatest consumption of birds’ eggs, when Canada geese, brants, mourning doves, and ducks passed through New England to migrate south.  In the summertime, fish, berries, wild nuts, and plants were readily available, and food stuffs were abundant.  When the fall approached, families disbanded to hunt caribou, beaver, moose, deer, and bear.  Heavy snows helped hunters track down their meat, and in February and March, when snowfall was light, it was a time of little food for the Native Americans.  It wasn’t until after 1400, when the colonists arrived and began bringing over domesticated farm animals to the Americas that the Native Americans were introduced to dairy [6].

The Evolution of Dairy in the American Diet

After World War II, when commodity prices were high, farms began investing a lot of money in new technologies, such as pesticides, irrigation systems, fertilizers, and plows [7].  The only way to pay back these investments was by producing cash crops, or crops that grew fast, and readily.  One of the largest cash crops was corn, and it quickly became a staple in the American diet.  Mainly because farmers started feeding it to cows as a way to bring them to slaughter-weight faster.  The problem with this?  Cows prefer a grass fed diet, which would allow them to reach their maximum weight by 5 years (versus 16 months), and also results in more nutritious milk [8,9].

At this point, farms were highly specialized, and capitilized for full production of speicalized crops.  However, these farms were in trouble when costs continued to rise, and prices started to fall, and the economically savvy were in power [10].  The government tried to control prices by purchasing surplus from farmers.  By 1983, the USDA came up with the Dairy Production Stabilization Act (dairy check-off program), which demanded a (now mandatory) 15-cent-per-hundredweight assessment on all milk produced in the United States to fund dairy product promotion through research, nutrition education, and marketing to increase human consumption of milk and dairy products, and decrease milk surpluses [3].  In 2003, their marketing budget exceeded $165 million, and worked in conjunction with other large food producers like Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, and McDonald’s, as well as the public school system [11].

Do We Need 3-Every-Day?

Americans consumer more cows milk per person than any population in the world, and yet American women over 50 years old have one of the highest fracture rates and the worst bone health.  The only countries that exceed the United States are Europe and the South Pacific, where they consume more dairy products [10].  This could be because increased animal protein consumption can increase acid in the stomach, which can cause the neutralizing mineral, calcium to be pulled from the bones [11].  A higher ratio of plant-to-animal protein sources has been associated with a lower incidence of hip fracture [11].  Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found consistent results, and concluded that dairy intake showed no protective effect on fracture risk [12].  Further, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn found that cancer enzyme activity could be easily modified by changing protein consumption in the diet of rats.  What was more surprising, was that the enzyme activity was most sensitive to casein, the main dietary protein found in milk.  As casein intake levels decreased, so did cancer enzyme activity.  Esselstyn discovered a pattern that nutrients from animal-based foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased cancer tumor development [11].

With the ever growing portion of non-government funded research that supports increasing plant-based food intake and decreasing animal-based food intake, it is likely that the human species does not need to consume three servings of dairy per day.  However, this is not to say that dairy products don’t have their place in the food industry, and like any other product on the market, they also have the right to advertise.  However, most advertisements prominent today are focused on our wants, and not necessarily our needs.  The American (or any) diet does not need three servings of dairy per day.  And thankfully, slowly but surely more research is coming to the forefront to support the fact that it is safe to consume raw milk, and more milk from grass-fed cows is coming to market such as large dairy producer, Organic Valley [13].

Our evolutionary history, as well as current and emerging research consistently shows that dairy is not a necessary component of the American diet.  But I will conclude with the bigger question here, which is, does the government have a place in the American diet, and should they be forming our dietary guidelines through marketing, especially when it’s not in the best interest of our health?

1.  “What Is Dairy? – Food Groups – – USDA.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

2.  “3-Every-Day® of Dairy.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

3.  “Agricultural Marketing Service – Dairy Producer Checkoff Programs.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

4.  “United States Dairy Program Subsidies || EWG Farm Subsidy Database.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

5.  Eaton, S B, and D A Nelson. “Calcium in Evolutionary Perspective.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 54, no. 1 Suppl (July 1991): 281S–287S.

6.  Cronon, William, and John Demos. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

7.  Strange, Marty. The Postwar Explosion of American Agriculture. May 16, 2013. (accessed June 24, 2013).

8.   Robbins, John. The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press, 2011.

9.  “Conjugated Linoleic Acid Content of Milk from Co… [J Dairy Sci. 1999] – PubMed – NCBI.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

10.   Marty Strange, Family Farming, A New Economic Vision (New Edition), (Lincoln Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

11.  Campbell, T. Colin. The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health. Dallas, Tex.: BenBella Books, 2005.

12.  “PCRM | Health Concerns About Dairy Products.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

13.  “Organic Valley – Grassmilk.” Accessed June 25, 2013.

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