Billions a Year
McCarron and Heaney estimated the health benefits and health care cost savings involved if all Americans increased their daily intake of calcium to the recommended level. For most adults, the recommended intake ranges from 1,000-1,500 mg per day. Among their conclusions:
- Fractures due to osteoporosis would be reduced by 20% in a year, saving $3.5 billion in health care costs.
- There would be 5% fewer obese Americans after a year and 25% fewer after five years.
- High blood pressure would be reduced by 40% in one year, saving the health care system $14 billion.
- The total health care savings over one year would exceed $26 billion.
McCarron acknowledges that the claims may seem exaggerated to some, but he tells WebMD that, if anything, they underestimate the true benefits that would be seen if all Americans ate healthy, calcium-rich diets.
"We didn't come up with this $26 billion figure to grab the headlines," he says. "We believe it is an honest number."
Is Low Fat Better?
While some would argue that the risks associated with eating higher-fat dairy products outweigh their benefits, McCarron says the clinical evidence does not back this up.
"You can't find a scrap of evidence in these studies that low-fat dairy products are better for you," he says. "I think (dairy fat) is not a fat that people need to be concerned with."
Tufts University nutritionist Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, strongly disagrees. While she says milk and other dairy foods are excellent sources of protein, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals, she also says people should chose low-fat or non-fat varieties.
"If the implication is that higher-fat dairy products are a reasonable choice and that there is no reason to choose lower-fat products over higher-fat ones, I would be concerned about that," she tells WebMD.
Lichtenstein says low-fat and nonfat dairy products are a big part of her diet, but she says the dairy industry is overstating the science regarding their health benefits. She cites a recent industry ad showing a glass of milk with an hourglass figure, designed to promote the beverage's role as a weight-loss aid. Lichtenstein is director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts.