The Link Between Dairy and Prostate Cancer

One of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the past two decades came to an unceremonious end not too long ago. “Got Milk?” was pulled by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP). Supermodels, superstar athletes, movie stars, rock stars, and other celebrities won’t be sporting frothy milk moustaches to give milk a little sex appeal while promoting its nutritional benefits.

The campaign was pulled, in part, because of declining milk consumption. Sales have dropped for the past two years and MilkPEP decided it was time to give milk a makeover. A new campaign—“Milk Life”—focuses on milk as a good source of energy-boosting protein. MilkPEP execs said the new milk campaign is necessary because “consumers aren’t aware of its nutritional benefits.”

What MilkPEP didn’t say is that the new campaign won’t focus on promoting milk as a source of calcium—a benefit that was emphasized in the “Got Milk” ads. And they didn’t mention a growing number of recent studies that link the consumption of milk and other dairy products to an increased risk for prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and possibly ovarian and breast cancers.

“In the case of prostate cancer specifically, researchers first thought the fat content in whole milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy foods might be responsible for the increased risk, but now they are examining the role calcium may play,” says Rich Bevan-Thomas, M.D., medical director of USMD Prostate Cancer Center. “High levels of calcium lower vitamin D levels in the bloodstream. Since vitamin D plays an important role in protecting the body against heart attack, diabetes, stroke, obesity and muscle weakness, high dairy intake could have a harmful effect.”

Dairy consumption also increases levels of insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-1) in the bloodstream. “We know that IGF-1 spurs the growth of cancer cells,” Dr. Bevan-Thomas says. “High IGF-1 is linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer and breast cancer.”

The most recent study—the Physicians Health Study by Harvard School of Public Health, the University of California, Fielding School of Public Health and McGill University in Quebec—seems to confirm the dairy-calcium-prostate cancer connection. Researchers tracked the dairy consumption of more than 20,000 male physicians over a 28-year period. Participants who consumed more than two servings of dairy a day had a 34 percent higher risk of developing prostate cancer than men who consumed very little or no dairy products.

“We found that skim/low-fat milk intake were related to higher risk of non-aggressive disease (low-grade, early stage and screen-detected cases), whereas whole milk intake was associated with a higher risk of fatal prostate cancer and, among all the cases, with a higher risk of progression to fatal prostate cancer,” researchers wrote in their study published in the Journal of Nutrition.

During the study, 2,806 cases of prostate cancer were diagnosed among the 21,660 participants.
Based on these results, the study recommends “minimal intake” of whole-fat dairy products—especially among elderly men and prostate cancer survivors.

“We’ve also seen in other studies that men who consumed more than 2,000 milligrams of calcium a day were more than three times as likely do develop metastatic prostate cancer than men who consumed less than 500 milligrams of calcium per day,” Dr. Bevan-Thomas says. “This means that after puberty, men should really pay attention to the amount of dairy they are consuming. An eight-ounce of glass milk has nearly 300 milligrams of calcium. It doesn’t matter if it’s a glass of whole, skim, 2% or 1% milk—they all have between 291 and 300 milligrams of calcium per eight-ounce glass.”

Other foods offer a healthier way to get calcium in much lower doses. Kale, broccoli, bok choy, mustard and collard greens, figs, almonds, calcium-fortified juices and soymilk are good sources of calcium and other cancer-fighting nutrients. Vitamin D, sometimes called the sunshine vitamin, is naturally made by the body after being exposed to the sun’s rays. In addition to spending time outdoors, eating fatty fish, egg yokes and fortified cereals is a good way to get vitamin D. Good nutrition through healthy eating is not only important for preventing cancer, it’s critically important when helping your body fight prostate cancer.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with prostate cancer and would like to know more about your treatment options, talk with one of the board-certified urologists at USMD Prostate Cancer Center.

Call 1-888-PROSTATE to schedule an appointment.

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