There's no shortage of tantalizing asides in The Passage of Power , the recently-released fourth volume of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.


The Power of a Lunchtime Glass of Milk

There's no shortage of tantalizing asides in The Passage of Power, the recently-released fourth volume of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. For example, did you know Bobby Kennedy briefly kept a sea lion in his family's swimming pool?

But the throwaway line which most struck me appeared in a paragraph detailing the activities of a Congressional committee investigating the finances of Johnson's aide Bobby Baker.

"Senate meetings normally break for lunch, but at 12:30...they didn't want to stop," Caro writes. "They sent a secretary out to bring back sandwiches and milk."

Milk? Really? I know U.S. milk consumption has declined drastically over the past few decades - a study released last year showed average consumption dropped 8 percent from 2000-2009, and is forecast to dip even further - but I assumed children and athletes were no longer drinking their share. Although I almost always see milk listed on menus from the first half of the 20th century, it somehow hadn't occurred to me that in 1963, when elected officials were charged with unraveling allegations involving Communism and sexual favors, someone would say, "Men, we're going to need some milk."

The National Dairy Council didn't respond to a message seeking statistics on contemporary adult milk consumption, but I can't recall ever being asked for milk when I worked as a restaurant server. I recently sat next to a man on a plane who ordered a glass of milk as a chaser for his gin, but if in-flight drinking habits were representative of what happened on the ground, vending machines would be stocked with nothing but tomato juice.

So what's the fallout from milk's waning popularity as a beverage? While it's impossible to pin the nation's obesity crisis on milk-drinking habits, Michael Zemel, director of the University of Tennessee's Nutrition Institute, says the societal shift away from milk as a meal accompaniment could play "a contributory role."

"Milk-drinking isn't going to make the pounds drop off," clarifies Zemel, who's conducted numerous research projects funded by the National Dairy Council. "But, in general, those who drink milk are leaner."

Zemel has found that adults who integrate milk into their diets in a calorie-neutral way don't gain weight as rapidly as non-milk drinkers.

"One-third of us are overweight, another one-third are obese and the rest of us are not fat yet," Zemel says. Most Americans move from not-fat to fat at a rate of one or two pounds a year, he adds.

"Of course, you don't notice. What's a pound?," he says. "You only notice when you hit those milestone birthdays, the ones that end in zero."

Milk drinkers, he says, tend to avoid that annual weight gain.

And the non-milk drinkers aren't just getting fat on the sodas they're drinking in milk's stead. According to Zemel, milk has "protective qualities in terms of both metabolism and satiety."

Because of the protein in milk, a child who drinks 150 calories of chocolate milk two hours before dinner will consume fewer calories at mealtime than a child who drinks 150 calories of soft drinks. While the study hasn't been replicated with adults, Zemel suspects it would produce similar results. Something to think about when you next send out for sandwiches.

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