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Drink Milk, Get Diabetes?

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

July 23, 2001 (New York) -- Does feeding an infant formula made with cow's milk increase their risk of developing type 1 diabetes? And if so, does breastfeeding protect at-risk infants against the disease?

Years of research have identified the potential link between cow's milk and type 1 diabetes, but not all experts are convinced. So, the debate continues.

A new study of more than 200 newborns at-risk for type 1 diabetes suggests that feeding an infant formula made with cow's milk may up their chances of developing the disease. The findings were presented earlier this month by Finnish research Hans K. Akerblom, MD, at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association in Philadelphia.

After breastfeeding, the babies were fed a formula made either with or without cow's milk. Those fed the formula made without cow's milk were about 50% less likely to develop proteins that are associated with type 1 diabetes. Thus, Akerblom postulates, cow's milk may cause diabetes in genetically at-risk kids.

But other studies have found that infants fed cow's milk are no more likely to develop the disease than infants who are breastfed.

Now, the researchers are launching a 17-country trial of about 3,000 children in an attempt to find a definitive answer.

So what's a mom to do now?

"The studies are a mixed bag," says Alan Greene, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, and founder of, a children's health website for parents.

"Clearly the answer is not in, but if there is someone with type 1 in the immediate family, I recommend breastfeeding for as long as possible -- at least one year -- or to avoid cow's milk formula for the first six to eight months," he tells WebMD.

Exactly what causes type 1 diabetes is not fully understood, but genes and early diet may play a role. Type 1 diabetes is less common in people who were breastfed and in those who first ate solid foods at later ages. One study showed that drinking about three glasses of cow's milk per day upped type 1 diabetes risk among children with siblings who have type 1 diabetes.

About one million Americans have type 1 diabetes, in which the body's insulin-producing cells are destroyed or absent. Insulin helps regulate the amount of sugar in our blood. In most people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system begins attacking its own insulin-producing cells. Without these cells, the body cannot make insulin and sugar builds up in the blood.

Some proteins in cow's milk may induce the immune system to attack insulin-producing cells.

"The studies are split," says John Buse, MD, the director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I think breast feeding ... may also be good for reducing diabetes risk."

Breastfed babies may have higher IQs and stronger immune systems than babies fed with formula. Previous research suggests that breastfeeding during a baby's first year may help lower the risk of gastrointestinal, or GI, tract infections, which affect the stomach and intestines, and atopic eczema, a common skin condition that affects around 10% of all infants and children.

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