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Dairy Ads May Dupe Dieters

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D

This op-ed was published on May 24, 2004, in the Detroit Free Press.

It builds bone. It makes muscle. It melts away surplus pounds faster than ice cream disappears from hot asphalt. Who knows? Maybe it can even give you back that new car smell.

The miracle product in question? It’s milk, of course—the white stuff that’s the right stuff. Or so argues the dairy industry, which recently launched yet another high-dollar advertising campaign to convince Americans they don’t consume enough dairy products.

Forget the Olsen twins sporting milk mustaches or the zaniness of the “Got Milk?” commercials. The new ads home in on one of America’s most serious concerns: the obesity epidemic.

One dairy industry-funded TV commercial shows a fat glass of milk magically slimming to hourglass proportions. Other ads are more coy: “Drink milk. Lose weight?” asks one from the National Dairy Council.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this propaganda blitz comes as skyrocketing milk prices are making some consumers skeptical of trips to the dairy case. The dairy industry knows Americans will pay big bucks to stave off obesity, so the new ads promote the idea that milk helps people lose weight.

But does it? As a nutritionist, I’m deeply skeptical. Indeed, I think that high-fat, high-calorie dairy products actually play a key role in America’s obesity epidemic.

Certainly the dairy industry’s weight-loss claims rest on pretty shaky scientific evidence. A good case in point is the latest announcement from one of the dairy industry’s star researchers, Michael Zemel of the University of Tennessee.

In a widely reported study funded by the National Dairy Council, Zemel claims to have found that three to four servings per day of dairy products increased the rate of weight loss in obese people on a calorie-restricted diet. Sounds like good news, right?

But a careful review of Zemel’s study, published in the April issue of Obesity Research, raises serious questions about both the research itself and the way it has been used as a marketing tool by the dairy industry.

First, the weight lost by dieters in Zemel’s high-dairy group was roughly a pound a week—about typical for anyone who, as these dieters did, reduces food intake by 500 calories a day.

Moreover, the group observed by Zemel and his colleagues was so small that only five male subjects completed the study. The high-dairy group totaled just 11 people. Jumping to broad conclusions based on such a small sample seems premature—to say the least.

A broader review of the scientific literature tells a very different story. Many other studies have found that adding dairy to your diet without restricting calories either has no effect or actually increases body weight. That’s not surprising. After all, cheese derives about 70 percent of its calories from fat. Even skim milk is 55 percent sugar, as a percentage of calories.

In truth, Americans already consume far too much dairy. As a result, milk is the single largest source of saturated fat—a leading contributor to coronary disease—in children's diets, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Development.

It’s only natural that milk producers see weight-loss claims as a strong selling point—a “golden opportunity,” as the International Dairy Foods Association described the situation in a recent marketing memo.

But for American consumers, there’s a serious danger here. Will a slick advertising campaign lead people to believe they can slim down by consuming more high-fat, high-calorie cheese or milk?

Our obesity problem has already reached epidemic proportions. The last thing we need is misleading weight-loss information from an industry giant.

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children.


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