Does cheese make you tall?

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The Dutch are the tallest people in the world.  Is it due to their love of dairy foods?

Up until the mid-19th Century, average height of people in the Netherlands was less than the average American height.  According to this fun BBC article,  Ben Coates, author of “Why the Dutch are Different” speculates that the increasing consumption of dairy foods made people grow taller.  The marshy lowlands of the Netherlands (or Holland) were a good fit for dairy farming.  As land was drained for development and pasture over the last few hundred years, cows thrived on the abundant grasses.  The Dutch became a nation of milk drinkers, and that tradition continues to this day.  Cheese is hugely popular as well.  People in Holland eat 25% more dairy foods than people in England, the US or Germany.

The most significant nutritional effect would be a higher intake of calcium.  Since calcium is a key component of bones, this could explain the Dutch height difference.  Milk and cheese are also important sources of phosphorus, protein and other vitamins and minerals that play a role in growth, including bone growth.  But those nutrients are available from other food sources.  Could calcium alone be the explanation?  Or is there something special about the whole packages of nutrients that comes together in milk?  We don’t know.

It’s interesting that despite all the milk drinking and cheese eating, the Dutch are not obese.  An effect of milk?  Or an effect of a more active lifestyle?  Or a different dietary pattern that doesn’t include non-stop snacking and soft drinks?  My take: it’s all of the above.  Milk and cheese are high protein and satisfying, stifling appetite so you’re less interested in between-meal snacks.

Whole milk and real cheese are significant sources of saturated fat, which has been maligned for decades as a cause of heart disease.   Thanks to the ongoing controversy about whether saturated fat is actually unhealthy, we’re seeing increased interest in cheese in the US.  Whether or not you worry about saturated fat, the key to enjoying cheese is to keep portions small.  Unfortunately, we’re in the habit of overloading cheese on certain foods that aren’t improved by excessive cheese, such as pizza, cheeseburgers and nachos.

Here are 5 ways to enjoy real cheese in 1/2 ounce portions:

  1. melted on whole grain toast for breakfast.  Use very thin slices, about 1/2 oz per piece of bread.
  2. grated on a green salad.  1/2 oz — about 2 TB — of grated cheese is plenty for one serving of salad
  3. on a wrap or burrito, with a variety of chopped vegetables
  4. in a 2-egg omelet, along with sautéed vegetables
  5. as cheese cubes, along with fresh fruit like grapes, sliced apple or sliced pears.  Great for a snack or a non-sugary dessert!

Will eating more cheese make you taller?  As the BBC articles points out, there are plenty of other possible explanations for the Dutch tendency to tallness, such as genetics or natural selection.  Nevertheless, the dairy connection is pretty fascinating.

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