Your bones may need calcium, but here's why it's time to moove on from milk

Because of a growing body of research, there is a dawning appreciation that allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk is behind a range of childhood illnesses.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Milk Marketing Board from the 1950s onwards (do you remember “Full of natural goodness”, “Milk’s gotta lotta bottle”, or “Drinka pinta milka day”?) dairy produce enjoys an almost unassailable position in British dietary culture. Milk is seen as vital, an indispensable source of calcium and vitamin D, the foundation stone for healthy teeth and bones.

The health-care professions have been as taken in as anyone; not even evidence implicating dairy in the development of later-life problems such as heart disease has been able to undermine the belief that, for our children to get the best start, they need to be pumped full of cheese and yogurt, all washed down with a glass of nice-coldice- cold milk.

This cultural enthusiasm for dairy led the medical profession into a collective, decades-long blindness. Even today, parents who believe their child to be allergic to milk are likely to be dismissed as oddballs, clutching at improbable straws in an attempt to understand their offspring’s health problems. Dreadful eczema? That’s a skin disease. Intractable abdominal pain and digestive mayhem? There must be something wrong with the gut. Chronic cough and mucous? That’ll be the lungs.

Milk, after all, is what babies are made of. What could be wrong with such a natural, wholesome food? However, because of a growing body of research, there is a dawning appreciation that allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk is behind a range of childhood illnesses.

The journey towards this understanding has been made difficult by several confounding factors. First, there is more than one type of allergic reaction. Immediate hypersensitivity to milk, which is rarer, is easy to diagnose. Directly after exposure to cow’s milk protein, the affected individual displays a florid response, which includes swelling of the lips, face and eyes; a wheeze and breathing difficulty; and a rash called urticaria, which looks like widespread nettle stings.

Much more common in cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) is delayed hypersensitivity. This is tricky. There is no clear link in time between exposure and symptoms. These babies tend to have difficult-to-treat eczema, refractory respiratory problems and a range of digestive disorders such as reflux (where acid stomach contents come back into the gullet and mouth), diarrhoea or constipation, colicky pain and even bleeding into the bowel.

We still do not completely understand delayed hypersensitivity and it is likely to be more common than its currently estimated prevalence of around 5 per cent.

Even when delayed hypersensitivity is suspected, there are a number of factors that can frustrate the diagnosis. Unlike immediate hypersensitivity, there is no blood or skin-prick test that can be given. Confirmation can only come from strict exclusion diets, where one would expect symptoms to resolve over a period of between two and eight weeks.

Exclusion diets are hard to stick to. Doctors frequently advise parents to switch to soya-based products, but there is crossreactivity between cow’s milk and soya protein in around 60 per cent of cases. Failure to improve when on a soya-only diet is often mistakenly interpreted as ruling out CMPA.

Another common misconception is that breastfed babies can’t develop CMPA, yet the offending proteins in a dairy-consuming mother will cross into breast milk and provoke allergy in just the same way as with bottle-fed infants.

From an evolutionary perspective, consuming milk beyond babyhood is unnatural, yet all infants depend on milk in their first year or so. Breastfeeding mothers with allergic offspring can go dairyfree but bottle-fed babies are, figuratively speaking, up a gum tree.

Fortunately, there are now a number of formulas available to treat CMPA. In each, the protein components are hydrolysed – chemically “chopped up” into smaller units –which are less likely to provoke an allergic response. But these are very expensive and their growing use is a source of concern to those responsible for NHS prescribing budgets.

A better long-term solution is to encourage and support breastfeeding – currently fewer than a quarter of new mothers are still exclusively breastfeeding at six weeks.

This needs to be coupled with a thorough rethink of our relationship with dairy foods. Even experts in the field of CMPA remain spellbound by the belief that milk is essential for calcium and vitamin D, advising breastfeeding mothers to take artificial supplements if they are cutting out dairy.

But, in reality, milk is a relatively mediocre source of these nutrients. There are innumerable other foodstuffs that carry more calcium than milk – broccoli, figs, almonds, sesame seeds and leafy green vegetables, to name but a few.

As for vitamin D, getting ourselves and our children out into natural sunlight every day is nature’s time-honoured solution. Who knows, we might even inculcate a renewed enthusiasm for fresh air and exercise into the bargain.

Dairy might not be as good for you as you previously thought. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.