Health officials in New York City are right. The typical bodega in the city's poorer neighborhoods is not brimming with healthy foods, and the residents who rely on these stores suffer for it. The unhappy results are higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among poor New Yorkers.
Thus the city is enlisting bodegas in central Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Harlem (where obesity rates exceed the city average) to encourage the sale of low-fat milk. Participating bodegas offer discounts on low-fat milk and tout its benefits. 'Moooove to 1 percent milk,' say the T-shirts worn by workers at El Barrio Superette in Harlem.
And it doesn't stop there. Earlier this month, city education officials announced that they had decided to remove whole milk from public school cafeterias.
Unfortunately, city officials have identified the wrong culprit in our health woes. Whole milk is one of the best foods in the average corner shop-and a vital part of a nutritious diet for public school children, who may not eat well at home.
Whole milk is what is called a complete food, because each ingredient plays its part. Without the fat, you can't digest the protein or absorb the calcium. The body needs saturated fat in particular (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat can't do the job) to take in the calcium that makes bones strong. Milk fat also contains glycosphingolipids, which are fats that encourage cell metabolism and growth and fight gastrointestinal infections.
The all-important vitamins A and D are found in the fat. Historically, whole milk and butter were the best sources of these vitamins in the American diet, which had up to 10 times more of both vitamins than modern industrial diets.
In skim and low-fat milk, the vitamins are removed along with the fat, so dairies add synthetic A and D. But Vitamins A and D are fat-soluble; that means they cannot be absorbed into the body unless they're taken in with fat. Thus, even fortified skim and low-fat milk are not nearly as beneficial as the real thing.
What about recommendations that we should drink low-fat milk to prevent heart disease? A federal study released last week, the largest study of its kind, found that low-fat diets do not prevent heart disease.
Instead, scientists are increasingly finding that whole milk and saturated fats have been given an undeserved bad rap. Many experts say the evidence blaming saturated fats for heart disease is surprisingly weak. Indeed, the main effect of eating saturated fats is to raise high-density lipoproteins, or H.D.L., the so-called good cholesterol. And with H.D.L., the higher, the better. In 2005, researchers from Llandough Hospital in Cardiff, Wales, released a study of Welsh men over 20 years that found that subjects who drank the most milk (both whole and low fat) had a lower risk of heart disease than those who drank the least. ' The present perception of milk as harmful in increasing cardiovascular risk should be challenged,' the researchers concluded.
Nor does whole milk cause diabetes. Diana Schwarzbein, a doctor in California who specializes is endocrine and metabolic diseases, found that Type 2 diabetics got worse on the recommended low-fat, low-saturated-fat, high- carbohydrate diet.
Whole milk doesn't make you fat. The main dietary causes of obesity are white flour and sugar. Sugar is stored in the body as fat. Even white bread provides a big shot of glucose-just like a sugary soda. In fact, the calcium in dairy foods enhances weight loss and reduces blood pressure (the calcium in tablets doesn't have same effect). For most children, the best source of calcium is milk.
The health commissioner is right to discourage New York City restaurateurs from using trans fats, which lower H.D.L.; raise low-density lipoprotein, or L.D.L., the so-called bad cholesterol; and promote obesity and diabetes. The excess of omega-6 fats in corn, soybean, safflower and other seed oils, combined with a lack of omega-3 fats (which come from fish), lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
What New Yorkers need is a citywide campaign to shun foods loaded with white flour, sugar, corn syrup, corn oil and trans fats. Banning the sale of soda in public schools, as Connecticut plans, would be smarter than banning whole milk.
Meanwhile, if a bodega is your only option and you want to eat well, buy canned fish, beans, eggs, and whole milk. That's what the health commissioner should encourage New Yorkers-rich and poor-to take home for dinner.
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