Milk Might Just be Good for the heart

Those of us who enjoy a nice, cool glass of milk as our preferred drink can take heart from the fact that the dairy product is undergoing something of a health rehabilitation. Although milk (of the human kind) is the first thing we consume when new to the world and the drinking of the cow variety is positively encouraged in youngsters to help grow strong bones and teeth, the advice when approaching middle age has been to cut back on the liquid, with evidence pointing to the fact that it clog’s arteries and is responsible for cardiac disease. There is even a dedicated website ‘milksucks.com’ that appears to make its mission one of ensuring that people never touch another drop, packed as it is with research that points to a correlation between a high milk intake and heart disease.

But the truth may not be so clear cut, as the consumption of milk has also been linked with a reduction in the incidence of a medical condition known as ‘metabolic syndrome,’ or ‘syndrome X’ or ‘insulin resistance syndrome.’ This condition constitutes a range of medical disorders that predispose those who have it to developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes and is said to increase the risk of death by half. In a study undertaken in the UAE population in 2008, a quarter of subjects were found to have metabolic syndrome.

Health organisations, such as the World Health Organisation and the International Diabetes Federation, have slightly different criteria for evaluating the condition, but the signs and symptoms are broadly the same. They include high blood sugar levels when a person has fasted, a high blood pressure, central obesity (characterised by an ‘apple’ shape around the midriff), a decreased level of HDL (known as ‘good’ cholesterol) and an elevated level of triglycerides; the main constituent of vegetable oil and animal fats. Dr. Margit Oremek, Endocrinologist, Medical Director and Head of the Cardiology Department at RAK Hospital, Ras Al Khaimah, says that; “Insulin resistance is a multi-factorial condition, comprising mainly obesity, lack of physical exercise, lipid disorders and impaired effect of insulin on the body cells. To deal with this situation and improve metabolic balance, a loss of body weight by at least 10% is advised, along with an increase in exercise of at least three hours per week. A healthy diet is also recommended.”

For many years, such a healthy diet has precluded the intake of dairy products, as the wealth of health literature has suggested that an avoidance of these is best for those in the age range who are most likely to be affected by metabolic syndrome.

However, a study carried out by the University of Cardiff in the UK revealed that consuming dairy products significantly reduces the risk of developing the condition. The 20-year research programme, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health followed 2,375 men aged between 45 and 59 years-of-age, 15% of whom were classified as having metabolic syndrome.

The tools for the research programme included food questionnaires and weekly food diaries. After the two decades of research, the results were collated and it was found that those men who drank one pint or more of milk every day were 62% less likely to have the syndrome. If they regularly ate other dairy produce they were 56% less likely to have it.

The researchers concluded that the more dairy produce the men consumed, the less likely was the finding of metabolic syndrome.

Commenting on the data, the study’s leader, Professor Peter Elwood, said:v “Dairy produce is part of a healthy diet and its consumption should be promoted and the present data add further to the evidence that milk and dairy products fit well into a healthy eating pattern.”

However, Dr. Ormerek still advises caution when it comes to dietary considerations for those who have, or who may be at risk of developing metabolic syndrome. “In the Gulf region, we would just recommend to go for low fat items and reduce drastically the amount of fried items in the diet,” she says. “Fish and poultry are more recommended in metabolic diseases than red meat. To maintain the protein intake cheese products might be helpful. It needs to be kept in mind, that in diabetic patients, a large amount of milk intake might raise the blood sugar significantly, as sugar (lactose) is present in milk,” she adds.

It seems that a little more time and research is needed before a definitive final conclusion on the benefits of consuming dairy products can be drawn, but at least some of us may now feel a little less guilty when reaching into the fridge for a refreshing slurp of cow juice.