To Your Health

Q. All my life I have really loved milk, but my wife is concerned that it is making me gain weight. At age 30 I am otherwise healthy but about 20% over my ideal weight. Would two glasses of milk per day be too much?

A. There are so many factors that enter into food choices that your personal experience may be the only trustworthy way to really decide. Sometimes regular consumption of a specific food leads to a curious situation known as "allergy/addiction," which may lead to weight gain. Allergy/addiction develops when a food is eaten regularly, even though it provokes subtle symptoms, because stopping the food provokes even worse symptoms.

One way to decide if you should stop using milk or any particular food is the classic "elimination and challenge" method to check for food allergy. Blood tests for food allergy are typically less than 50% accurate, but removing the food completely from your diet for about a week and then deliberately overeating that food should tell you a lot (best to challenge at noon to make a response more noticeable). When a food becomes a burden on your body you may adapt to regular intake, so that you don't have immediate ill effects when the food is consumed. When you stop eating that food, there may be a withdrawal period of two to three days in which you feel fluish and overly tired. When this passes, you may feel better than usual until you again have a generous serving of the offending food. So a pattern of feeling worse when you stop eating a food, better after a few days, but worse again when you eat it again generally means that at least for a few months that food should be avoided.

Milk is especially difficult to avoid because it will appear in foods under various names. In order to completely avoid milk and milk products, including even "non-dairy" products that often contain milk components, you will need to check the labels on prepared foods not only for milk but also for a long list of ingredients such as casein, lactose, butter, or whey. For most people this boils down to a week of home cooking, avoiding even restaurant meals because so many prepared foods contain sneaky milk.

Food intolerance apparently does not last as long as pollen or mold allergy, so even if you react negatively in the "elimination and challenge" experiment, you may find that after a few months you can tolerate small and infrequent servings of the problem food.

"Body wisdom" is another possible reason that a food may be attractive, because of a need for the nutrients provided by that food. Body wisdom is the ability to self-select the foods that supply the nutrients we need most. When a laboratory animal is fed a diet deficient in a vitamin or mineral, it will switch to a novel diet, even if it tastes bad, and continue eating the new food if it contains the missing nutrient. This mechanism cannot always be trusted, especially when a food is attractive for other reasons. For instance, when high-sugar foods are among the available choices, "body wisdom" can be overwhelmed by the allure of a sweet taste.

There is some good news for you if you do pass the elimination and challenge test for milk. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published the results of a study on the effects of milk consumption on Type II diabetes. This 10-year study of over 3,000 men and women indicates that 10 or more servings of milk each week reduces the odds of overweight participants developing Type II diabetes. Type II diabetes is ordinarily more prevalent in plump people so this is good news for those who tolerate milk well.

The elimination and challenge test is probably the best way to discriminate between allergy/addition that prompts you to eat foods that undermine your health and your body wisdom that leads you to eat the foods from which you will derive genuine benefit.

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