An activist physicians group entered the battle of the bulge yesterday, filing lawsuits in Alexandria that accuse the dairy industry of fraudulently claiming that people can shed pounds by consuming more dairy products.
The two lawsuits by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed in Alexandria Circuit Court, contend the industry has promoted the weight-loss notion through a "massive, deceptive advertising campaign." In fact, the committee says, overwhelming scientific evidence shows that dairy products cause weight gain or have no effect on weight.
The sole plaintiff in the suits, Catherine Holmes of Arlington, said in an interview yesterday that she went on the so-called "dairy diet" late last year because she "just wanted to drop a dress size or two." Holmes, 46, said she wound up gaining three pounds.
"I was thinking that I wasn't seeing the fat melting off like all those skinny little girls in the ads," said Holmes, who is 5 feet 5 and weighs 163 pounds. "They need to pull these ads and quit misleading people."
One of the lawsuits seeks an order from a judge halting the dairy industry campaign, and the other lawsuit seeks damages for Holmes. Among the defendants are Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., the Dannon Co. Inc. and three dairy industry trade groups.
The dairy industry strongly defended the advertising campaign and reiterated its contention that consuming dairy products helps with weight loss when coupled with calorie restriction. One of the groups that was sued yesterday, the National Dairy Council, has spent $200 million promoting the idea since 2003.
"A growing body of scientific research continues to strengthen the connection between dairy consumption and weight management," industry groups said in a statement. Adults who cut calories and get three servings of milk products a day, the statement says, "are more successful at weight management and weight loss than those who don't."
As concern grows nationally over increasing obesity among children, researchers have been debating the role of dairy products in the trend. The percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980.
The largest study to examine the question found this month that children who drink more than three servings of milk each day are prone to becoming overweight. The more milk children drank, the more weight they gained, according to the study, which followed more than 12,000 children nationwide.
But other studies have found a benefit from drinking milk. The lawsuits filed yesterday charged that the dairy industry's weight-loss campaign is based solely on studies conducted by Michael B. Zemel, a professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of Tennessee. His objectivity is "compromised," the lawsuits say, because his research is funded by the dairy industry.
In an interview, Zemel did not dispute that he has accepted nearly $1.7 million in research grants since 1998 from the National Dairy Council. But he added: "The notion of my work being tainted because of my funding source is ridiculous. You'd have to be a fool -- and a career-ending fool -- to let your funding source dictate your results."
Zemel and industry groups tried to focus attention on the physicians committee, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates a plant-based diet. About 5,000 of the group's 100,000 members are doctors, according to Howard White, a spokesman. The industry statement criticized the committee as an "anti-meat, anti-dairy group" and an "animal rights group."
Marybeth Thorsgaard, a spokeswoman for General Mills Inc., said that the company plans to fight the lawsuit and that its advertising is accurate. "There is a substantial body of scientific evidence that supports the connection between calcium and potential weight loss," she said.
A Kraft Foods spokeswoman, Alyssa Burns, said the company is no longer running dairy weight-loss ads, but "any statements we made in the . . . ads we ran at the beginning of the year are fully substantiated."