Does Milk Really Do a Body Good?

Not according to the late Dr. Spock, and increasing numbers of parents who are choosing animal-free diets for themselves and their children

Gazing with bewildered amazement into the sleepy eyes of a newborn life, nearly every parent is compelled by a irrepressible desire for a crystal ball. A glimpse into the hidden hopes and heartaches, tragedies and triumphs of unblemished potential, poised to absorb all the highs and lows the world might offer.

We can nudge our children in the right direction. We can teach them the ways to achieve emotional and physical balance in their lives, but can we also affect their chances of contracting juvenile diabetes, suffering through breast cancer as adults, or dying too soon of heart disease or stroke? Are these diseases simply the risks we face as human beings? Or can we predict--or even reverse or prevent the onset--of some of the deadliest afflictions to challenge the biological sanctity of the human body?

High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity have become the end-product of millions of Americans' lifestyle choices. While few experts deny the influence of myriad other environmental, social, and genetic factors that influence our physical wellbeing, a growing movement of doctors and nutritionists is legitimizing a lifestyle built on what many believe to be nothing short of a biological self-determination.

According to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, nearly seventy percent of all Americans are dying from chronic ailments associated with their diets. Cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other degenerative diseases are on the rise. About half of Americans will die of heart disease; one-third will have cancer, and one-quarter will die of it. Some experts claim we can cut our cancer risk in half--and stop heart disease or reverse the damage it does--simply by altering our diets. An evolution to a nondairy vegetarian--or vegan--nutritional regimen could revolutionize the way we see our bodies, our minds, and our planet.

In June, with the publication of the late Dr. Benjamin Spock's seventh edition parental handbook, Baby and Child Care, the pediatric community was shaken by a radical anti-meat and anti-dairy proclamation. In a break from traditional faiths, Dr. Spock's latest edition advises that children be raised on an all-plant diet. A formal declaration heralding the benefits of veganism in the second best-selling book of all time, next to the Bible, is indeed a victory for plant-based diet advocates. Dr. Spock's own struggle with a series of illnesses encouraged him to adopt an animal-free diet in 1991. The revered pediatrician's rebounded health sparked a new way of thinking from the meat- and milk-packed advice of his first book, published in 1946.

Many doctors and parents alike herald Spock's pioneering book as important leap in the right direction for a society that is gripped by misconceptions about the proclaimed benefits of milk and animal protein.

Contrary to critics' images of sickly, malnourished children suffering from a lack of animal protein, advocates contend that plant-based diets secure optimal, healthy growth while discouraging disease. Many parents who subscribe to animal-free nutrition are devoted not only to healthy bodies, but healthy minds as well, clinging to the connection between the use of animals as ingestible products and the disregard for compassionate social values. Advocates point to the power of veganism to define and connect controversial social issues such as animal rights, ecological and environmental health, the politics of big business, and personal wellbeing. Human nutrition goes far beyond the elemental notion of food as an essential, artless fuel for basic survival.

The Myth of Dairy

With every marketing message praising milk as the the perfect food, a quiet but growing backlash against the all-American drink is reaching the mainstream. Many new anti-dairy advocates, once charmed by milk's wholesome appeal, are rethinking the benefits of a food that they claim may even deplete the body of calcium by boosting protein intake.

The U.S. is one of the highest dairy consuming countries in the world. Americans also boast alarmingly high rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures. If calcium is the panacea, why such unbalanced statistics, milk critics ask. Veganism proponents say the fear of a raising a generation of children denied the pleasures of a milkshake and ice cream sundae grows from a culture mired in a narrow interpretation of healthy nutrition.

"We are the only species on earth who drinks another animal's milk after weaning," says Richard Wicklund, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician with Health Partners in Apple Valley. "Meat and dairy products are certainly not necessary for a child's well-balanced nutrition."

Pediatricians continue to stress the importance of breastfeeding for parents considering veganism for their children. The make-up of mother's milk provides all the necessary nutrients essential for a healthy start. But Wicklund says that fears are generally unfounded when in comes to critics' claims that a childhood without milk is a recipe for nutritional disaster.

"We look at it all historically," says Tatiana Riabokin, chiropractor and acupuncturist at Westside Natural Health Clinic. "In the past, farmers did not have access to hi-tech hormones and antibiotics. They had to keep their animals healthy and well. Today farmers do a lot of cheating with the health of their animals."

Generations ago, food was consumed in its purest, unadulterated form. Today, most products have been altered both biochemically and mechanically, Riabokin says. "So much of the food we have access to today has been laced with chemicals, pesticides, and hormones."

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