Does Milk Really Do a Body Good?

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."

Many patients of alternative care clinics, employing drugless, nonsurgical healing therapies, have given up on traditional medical techniques, Riabokin says. They are looking to organic diets to replace the antibiotic therapies often prescribed to combat childhood ailments that are far too frequently diet-related. Riabokin stresses that there are no substitutes for breast milk in infancy, but a sudden switch to pasteurized, homogenized, and chemically treated cow's milk can often wreck havoc with a child's immature digestive system.

"We've seen an incredible increase in childhood allergies over the last forty years," Riabokin says. Other possibly preventable conditions include infant colic, ear infections, acne, diabetes, and digestive problems due to general cow's milk intolerance. Natural hormonal balances in pre-pubescents is also thrown off kilter by a high consumption of hormonally modified dairy. On average, American girls now reach puberty at age eleven, compared with age seventeen in Asia where very little dairy is consumed. Milk critics contend that research heralding the health of dairy is skewed to benefit the bottom-line profit of the industry.

Ethics and Responsibility

Pam Finamore, a St. Paul-based attorney, has been raising her five-year-old son, Matthew, on a nonmilk vegetarian diet since his birth. He is the only vegetarian in his preschool class, but Finamore says other parents, teachers, friends, and family have shown only curiosity and support for Matt's animal-restricted diet. "Our pediatrician was fascinated when he saw that Matt was an energetic, happy little kid," she says. "He was very interested and asked me for advice and information on what we ate."

Finamore and her husband, Michael DeJong, biology-department chair at the University of St. Thomas, look at the family's lifestyle from a nutritional as well as moral perspective. "It was simply out of the question that we'd give Matt animal products. There's so much anecdotal as well as scientific evidence that an animal-free diet is a great way for children to receive nutrition and live in a compassionate world."

Finamore practices employment and civil rights, as well as animal-protection law, and says that her own motivation for switching to a plant-based diet eighteen years ago grew from her exposure to the cruelties of modern mass-farming methods. "At that time I really had no idea," Finamore explains. "I just didn't give any thought to where my meat came from before I finally made the connection between a piece of flesh wrapped in plastic and a living animal." Few Americans see the shocking realities of the institutionalized cruelty in the food production industry, Finamore says. The once pastoral vision of the family farm has been nearly choked into the historical archives by the explosion of the high-volume, modern agribusiness. In the United States more than nine billion animals are killed annually for human consumption.

Most chickens are raised in battery cages in an effort to maximize production and profits. Pigs, cows, and other animals are raised indoors in crates and fed by machines--an economically efficient design, but ethically questionable and ecologically devastating.

An unbalanced amount of the earth's natural resources are being used for meat production. Some statistics claim that raising animals for food uses up to ninety percent of the planet's agricultural resources, depleting irreplaceable topsoil, polluting groundwater, and destroying forests and other wildlife habitats. According to the President's Science Advisory Committee, fifteen vegetarians can be fed on the amount of land needed to produce one meat-eater's diet.

The Art of Nutrition

Most vegans obey the recommendations of the "New Four Food Groups." Vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) round out the requirements for a successful plant-based diet. The appropriate amount of each guarantees the necessary vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats required for well-rounded nutrition. While critics name protein and calcium as two essential animal-derived nutrients, vegan advocates argue that a healthy animal-free diet provides ample amounts of both without the negative side effects of a standard milk and meat regimen.

"Avocado is great source of fat. Broccoli is loaded with calcium," Finamore says. "There are always options. You must educate yourself, but it doesn't have to be an arduous task." Finamore says that simple substitutions make a vegan diet undaunting.

Many meals for Matthew include textured vegetable protein (TVP), a soy-derived alternative that mirrors meat products in appearance and flavor. Vegan hamburgers, hot dogs, and luncheon meats mimic the originals with impressive accuracy. With other products such as tofu, hummus, nut butters, and alternative milks such as rice, soy, or nut, a vegan diet can be creative and satisfying to even the most discriminating palates. "It's really not as strange a way of eating as some people think," Finamore says.  

While many vegans turn to prepackaged convenience, others believe in the sanctity of natural food in its purest form. Sharon and Scott McKendry are raising their sons, eleven-year-old Alex and nine-year-old Eric, with the wisdom that good nutrition comes from unprocessed, plant-based sources. "We think of it as eating live food instead of dead food," says Sharon McKendry, a commercial artist. She and her husband, Scott, a contractor, eased into veganism as a conscious effort to throw off what they believe to be the flawed guidelines of traditional nutritional choices.

The McKendrys defend their decision to instill these habits in the family by offering the health and happiness of their children as examples of the positive results of careful nutrition. "They're tickled by the fact that their taking care of their bodies," McKendry says. "They're healthy, active, have good appetites--they're certainly not depriving themselves."

While the diet mandates that both boys bring their own meals to school or birthday parties, the annoyances of life in a nonvegan world are insignificant when compared to the long-term benefits of healthy nutrition, McKendry says.

Accepting Differences

Emotional and social concerns define child rearing, but critics contend that raising kids in such a nonconformist way may expose immature nervous systems to the harsh realities of living so far from the mainstream. All children want to belong, but are vegan kids given a heavier cross to bear? Every child is different, and nearly all carry some perceived social stigma, Wicklund says. "Each person is unique and needs to be comfortable with him or herself. Parents need to be a little more relaxed."

McKendry says the family is met with little hostility or disapproval from family and friends. "There's more curiosity than criticism," she says. "We've tried to talk to the boys about everybody else's freedoms as well as ours."

"I just don't think it's that big a deal," Alex confirms. "All my friends know I'm a vegetarian and they're very supportive."

While parents strive to influence and educate, most are careful not to force their own nutritional or ethical beliefs on their admittedly impressionable children. "We've always stressed that it's Matt's choice," Finamore insists. "We're not going to tell him, 'you can never eat meat.' We make sure he know, that he does have a choice."

Maintaining a healthy vegan lifestyle has its nutritional and social challenges, but many parents see their system as an important opportunity to present the topic of individuality and to teach children awareness and sensitivity to the culture and values of others. Vegan advocates insist that a movement away from animal products will improve the odds against a laundry list of nutritional maladies that plague both children and adults. More and more Americans are putting their faith in a movement that is nothing more than a concerted effort to ensure a more sustainable, less violent, and healthier future.

Andrea Heaton is a freelance writer and business owner in Edina. Her last contribution to Minnesota Parent was a memoir about her pilgrimage to her ancestral Norwegian homeland.


* Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, by Benjamin Spock, M.D. and Steven J. Parker, M.D. (Pocket Books, 1998)

* Pregnancy, Children and the Vegan Diet, by Michael Klaper (Gentle World, 1988)

* The Vegetarian Mother & Baby Book, by Rose Elliot (Pantheon Books, 1996)

*Vegetarian Pregnancy: The Definitive Nutritional Guide to Having a Healthy Baby, by Sharon K. Yntema (McBooks Press, 1994)

* Vegetarian Baby: A Sensible Guide for Parents, by Sharon Yntema (McBooks Press, 1991)

* Vegetarian Children: A Supportive Guide for Parents, by Sharon Yntema (McBooks Press, 1995)


* Vegan Handbook: Over 200 Delicious Recipes, Meal Plans, and Vegetarian Resources for All Ages, edited by Debra Wasserman and Reed Mangels, Ph.D, R.D. (The Vegetarian Resource Group, 1996)

* Better Than Peanut Butter & Jelly: Quick Vegetarian Meals Your Kids Will Love, by Wendy Muldawer & Marty Mattare (McBooks Press, 1997)


* (Vegetarian Resource Group)--information on raising vegan kids from pregnancy to adulthood--A.H.

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