Keen Cuisine: Dairy Queen

When the first food may be the best food.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Milk was your first food, so it hardly seems a cutting-edge component of our diets. Still, milk just might be one of the last of the great mystery foods, so rich in nutrients that no one has quite figured out yet how they all impact our bodies and our minds.

But evidence keeps pouring in that milk deters one of the major health problems of our time—metabolic syndrome, a cluster of weight-related disorders encompassing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, disturbances in blood fats, and premature death.

Buy milk the way nature intended it—from grass- or pasture-raised cows. The fat profiles of grain-fed and grass-fed cows markedly differ. Grass-based milk contains both omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid, which preserves arteries and prevents cancer.

The Brain Saver

Make sure you consume plenty of low-fat milk and other dairy products if you want to prevent hypertension, which is now linked to those two big brain robbers, dementia and stroke. A major study of more than 2,200 adults aged 55 and over showed that after two years, those with the lowest blood pressure had the highest intake of dairy products. A long-term study of over 28,000 women limits the antihypertensive benefits to low-fat dairy products, not high-fat ones.

Weighty Effects

Increasing consumption of milk and dairy products is linked to decrease in body weight and in occurrence of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Researchers think the common element is an effect on insulin resistance. Milk improves sensitivity to insulin, even in animals consuming a high-sucrose diet. But many dairy components impact metabolism. Medium-chain fatty acids in milk improve insulin sensitivity, as do whey proteins and amino acids; they also reduce body fat.

A for Appetite Loss

An easy way to curb appetite is to drink skim milk for breakfast. Proteins are more satiating than carbohydrates, and milk is rich in whey and casein proteins. Thirty-four overweight men and women reported feeling more satiated throughout the morning after consuming skim milk than after consuming a fruit drink. And when the metal of fork hit the mouth, they actually consumed less for lunch. The perception of satiety is greater—and so is the actuality.

The Real Thing

When it comes to reducing oxidative stress and inflammation—processes implicated in chronic disorders from heart disease to depression—only the real thing will do. Dairy food, but not soy-based substitutes, reduced markers of oxidative stress by 12 to 22 percent, and inflammation by 10 to 15 percent in 20 overweight subjects. Positive effects were detectable within a week of consuming dairy food and continued throughout the 28-day test period.

But No Milk in That Tea, Please

Despite all the nutritional and functional benefits of both milk and tea, the two don't mix well health-wise. Adding milk to tea negates the antioxidant power of tea. The casein proteins of milk decrease the role of catechins, which are powerful tea flavonoids shown to protect against dementia, heart disease, aging, and some cancers. Taking tea with milk may explain why the British do not share the cardioprotective benefits of tea seen in Asian populations.