Wednesday, June 8:  Driving down the interstate in heavy traffic (the Kansas City area is relatively free of traffic congestion, but has its moments), I listen to a news-talk radio station. About this time every morning, the station carries a “Rush update,” a 90-second commentary from conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. This particular morning, Limbaugh starts off talking about possible terrorist attacks on school lunches, so I kind of tune it out thinking, “What are they going to worry us about next?” Then, he starts talking about milk.

Again, I am in heavy traffic, thinking, “Am I really hearing this? Is he really saying what I think he is saying — that milk causes kids to gain weight, not lose weight?”

Somehow, he tied the school-lunch-terrorism issue to news from the day before. Researchers at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that children who consistently drank more than three servings of milk a day gained more weight than children who drank lesser amounts. At one point, Limbaugh’s commentary read:

“Okay, give them milk. No, can’t give them milk. Turns out milk makes them even fatter than sodas...”

Meanwhile, I am noticing the traffic around me — the blue Toyota, the black truck — and wondering, “Are those people hearing this, too?”

Public perception is such a fragile thing. 

Most people won’t dig any deeper than what they hear on the radio or see on TV.  But, on this particular issue, I must dig deeper. I go to the medical library of a local hospital to get the full-text version of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine article that reported the Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School research. I read it several times, and then run my impressions past a nutritionist at the National Dairy Board who also has studied the document at length. We both agree that the research has several flaws in it. For one thing, it is an epidemiological study, and not a controlled-research study. In an epidemiological study, you cannot control for all of the variables, so it is difficult to say with certainty that just one variable (i.e., milk consumption) makes the critical difference.

I feel sorry for the average citizen who listens to these reports because he or she is constantly being buffeted from all sides. Especially on diet-related matters, he or she has to wonder, “What can I believe?”

I, for one, have to believe the scientists and nutritionists who helped assemble the USDA’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines. They upped the recommendation from two to three (8-ounce) servings of dairy per day to three full servings. While they didn’t wholeheartedly endorse the weight-loss claims made by the dairy industry, they seemed to be saying, “Dairy foods are not contributing to the obesity crisis in America and may, in fact, be part of the solution.”

When it comes to health-related matters and public perception, we need to be vigilant.