Jan. 29, 2004 -- The dairy industry is working hard to promote the idea that Americans would be healthier if they ate at least three servings a day of their products. Now an industry-sponsored review of clinical studies suggests that the nation's ailing health care system would be in better shape as well.
In a study published in January's American Journal of Hypertension, researchers David A. McCarron and Robert P. Heaney estimated that if all Americans ate three to four servings of calcium-rich dairy foods each day, as part of a healthy diet, the health care savings would exceed $200 billion over five years.
The researchers reviewed roughly 100 studies spanning two decades to come up with the figure. According to McCarron, the studies offer strong evidence that dairy foods play a role in reducing the risk of a host of common diseases and conditions, including obesity, hypertension, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart attack and stroke.
Experts who spoke to WebMD characterize the evidence linking a calcium-rich diet with protection from these conditions as intriguing but far from conclusive. Although it is clear that calcium helps keep bones strong, the jury is still out on many of its other health benefits, they say.
"People who have higher intakes of calcium tend to be those who have better diets and take better care of themselves anyway," American Heart Association spokesman Dan Jones, MD, tells WebMD. "So it is hard to say if the health benefits seen in these studies are directly associated with this particular micronutrient."
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.
"Milk has so much going for it," she says. "It is an excellent source of many types of nutrients. I just worry that the (dairy industry) may be pushing the claims too far."