Dairy is a tricky subject when it comes to health. While we all depend on it in some form for the first few years of life, the question of adult consumption of dairy is a tougher one to answer. “Foods” like grains and man-made fats are more easily recognizable as having no place in healthy human consumption, but dairy can be confusing.
Dairy is composed of a mixture of protein, fats and carbohydrates and it does have a pretty good profile of available nutrients in its raw state. It also creates a big insulin response, especially for the amount of sugar (lactose) it contains. Dairy can vary greatly in its form and foods like full-fat raw dairy can hardly be compared to the watered down, highly processed and nutrient devoid skim milk of the supermarket shelves. There is also a substantial difference between ice cream and organic grass-fed butter (obviously!).
So what is a health conscious mom of growing kids to do? Some, like the highly recognized Weston A. Price Foundation, recommend regular consumption of organic, raw, grassfed dairy, especially in fermented form like yogurt and kefir. Those who follow a paleo or ancestral diet point out that dairy is a relatively new addition to the human diet and that our systems have not adjusted to handle it yet.
To help understand the quandary, let’s break it down by the different types of dairy:
Regular Pasteurized Dairy
By law, at least in most states, any dairy you buy from a store is pasteurized and homogenized, giving it a longer shelf life at the expense of valuable nutrients. The pasteurization process kills the live (beneficial) enzymes in milk and destructures the proteins. In doing so, it reduces the vitamin content dramatically and kills those “live and active” cultures that are supposed to be healthy for you. Also, while milk is consumed in America for it’s calcium content, it doesn’t contain much available calcium and the calcium it does have is put to shame by many vegetables, nuts and fish like salmon or sardines.
Dairy in its grocery store form is also a highly marketed food. As is often the case, extensive marketing can be a good warning sign to avoid consumption (see also: “healthy whole grains“). Dairy marketing is specifically targeted at kids, those wanting to lose weight, and those at risk for osteoporosis (p.s. calcium needs saturated fat to be absorbed, so a low-fat diet will put you at a higher risk for osteoporosis than not drinking milk).
Growing kids consume more milk than any other individual group, since it is recommended for their growth and given in schools instead of water. Unfortunately, it is given in low-fat or chocolate forms, which have actually been shown to increase rates of obesity more than full fat dairy. A Swedish study in 2006 that followed 230 families found that children on low-fat diet (including low-fat dairy) had a 17% higher rate of obesity, that these children consumed more sugar (to make up for the calories they weren’t getting from calorie-dense fat) and had higher insulin resistance.
Besides the fact that all kids, not just those under 2 years, need healthy fats and most milk given to them is reduced fat, milk is just not the best nutrient source for kids. Vegetables and certain fish offer much higher levels of calcium and are easier for the body to absorb. Even human breastmilk, thought to be a perfect source of nourishment for babies, contains less calcium than the same amount of brazil nuts or olives. Vegetables also create an alkaline environment in the body, which is conducive to calcium absorption and retention. (Milk, on the other hand, makes the body acidic).
As you probably have heard, conventional dairy can also contain moderate to high levels of recumbent growth hormone and antibiotics (fail again, FDA).
Foods like cheese and yogurt are also marketed as healthy snack options for growing kids. These products are also pasteurized, losing most of their nutrient profile, and yogurt often has so much added sugar that the benefits are negated by the insulin spike.
Raw, Organic, Pastured, Grass-fed, Full-fat Dairy
This type of dairy is a different type of animal altogether. It has been demonized by the FDA because of its possibility of live bacteria (What do you think probiotics are?). The FDA doesn’t have a shining record on actually keeping us safe from dangerous foods (i.e. MSG, processed grains, hydrogenated oils, etc.), so a negative endorsement by the FDA often leads to further investigation on my part.
Organic and raw dairy from grass-fed sources contains a lot more nutrients and live enzymes than pasteurized versions. The full-fat content also mitigates some of the insulin spike and makes the calcium more bio available. In its fermented form, this type of dairy can be a good source of probiotics and calcium. Fermentation also helps break down the lactose, making the overall sugar content considerably less.
Raw pastured dairy is in its most natural form and its structure hasn’t been altered by any kind of treatment process. As with most foods, if you are going to consume it, go for the most natural form. Dairy in forms like butter and ghee also contain almost no lactose and contain good levels of healthy fats. Especially from grass-fed sources, these types of dairy are excellent nutrient sources and most people can handle them no problem.
Research has shown that a percentage of people in practically every population worldwide are lactose intolerant (with the exception of certain groups that can trace their roots to herding populations thousands of years ago). The widespread of intolerance to dairy is an indicator that it consumption, or at least its over-consumption, can potentially be harmful. As with grains (it is estimated that 1 in every 133 people is an undiagnosed celiac) and peanuts (actually a legume) widespread problems with a food group often indicates that the body isn’t properly disposed to digest it, at least in large amounts. Conversely, when was the last time you heard of someone being allergic to meat or leafy vegetables?
The widespread dairy intolerance should at least warrant a closer look at its health implications. Science has proven that some or all of our ability to properly digest lactose and casein is lost after age 4- which is also the age that many cultures around the world stop breastfeeding. As I have found in nutritional consulting, and as allergists sometimes report, many people have an allergy or sensitivity to dairy and don’t know it because they are used to the feeling of compromised health that is causes for them.
An easy way to tell how your body responds to dairy is to remove it from your diet entirely for a month and then reintroduce and see how you feel. Many people report feeling better off dairy and some notice no difference.
Milk Allergies in Children
In addition to the prevalence of lactose intolerance, milk allergy is on the rise and is the most common food allergy in infants and young children. While most children “outgrow” (or become tolerant to) their milk allergy, outgrowing a childhood allergy may occur as late as the teenage years.
Thankfully, we now understand more about the window in which milk allergies form. Landmark studies have shown that exposing 4-6 month old infants to food allergens like milk early and often can help reduce their risk of developing allergies by 67–80%. If I had known then what I know now, I would have introduced dairy earlier to my son. There are now even natural supplements that can be added to an infant’s breastmilk, formula, or solid food to reduce the risk of forming a milk allergy in the first place.
Like I mentioned, dairy (especially low-fat milk) causes a disproportionate spike in blood sugar. (Biology 101: carbohydrates fuel insulin spike, insulin spike eventually causes metabolic syndrome and diabetes). This rise in insulin is caused by the lactose and proteins (casein) in milk. It is substantially lower or non-existent in high fat dairy foods like cream, butter, and ghee. For most of us, already operating on a sugar roller-coaster, milk is just not the healthiest choice in beverage. Even for kids, water is always a superior choice, especially with a meal high in good fat, protein, and vegetables. We often drink milk for its calcium, fat and “weight loss” benefits, all which can be better accomplished with other foods or drinks.
What About the Calcium?
Though I mentioned this before, this is often the single most quoted reason for dairy consumption. While many other foods offer far superior sources of calcium, recent research has even shown that high levels of calcium (especially from non-bioavailable sources like dairy) can actually spur osteoporosis. Dairy (like soda, processed foods, grains and processed fats) makes the body acidic, actually reducing the amount of calcium available to the body. To neutralize the acidic environment created by these foods, the body can actually leech calcium from the bones, causing decreased calcium levels.
What about Vitamin D?
It is great that Vitamin D is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves for being so necessary to good health. The body absolutely needs Vitamin D from the sun or supplementation of vitamin D3 to function optimally. Unfortunately, like with calcium, the vitamin D in milk and dairy is often artificially added and not a very available source of vitamin D at all. It is also in such small amounts, that it will not substantially raise vitamin D levels in the body. I highly recommend getting blood levels of vitamin D tested and supplementing with sun or D3 to get to optimal levels, but dairy is certainly not the most effective option.
The dairy alternative market has gotten huge in recent years, probably because of the rise in lactose intolerance. Some good alternatives do exist, but many of these options have their own list of problems.
Rice milk is made from soaking and blending rice with water and a host of other ingredients. It causes an even bigger insulin spike than regular milk, as rice is a grain, and a high glycemic one at that! It is often one of the cheapest options, but it doesn’t contain much of any important nutrient, and it causes a big insulin spike. I don’t recommend it.
Soy milk is made with soybeans, water and a host of other gums, starches and fillers. As with any other unfermented soy, it contains high levels of estrogen and is therefore unhealthy, especially for boys and women of childbearing age. I highly discourage use of soy milk.
Almond milk is slightly better than the other two, though to avoid fillers and sugars, I suggest making it yourself, which is also a much cheaper option. If you opt for the store bought versions, go for unsweetened. Cashew or pecan milk is also easy to make with the same method.
This is, in my opinion, the best alternative out there to milk. Though coconuts don’t actually have milk in them, but rather a high-electrolyte juice (called coconut water commercially) that is great for replenishing electrolytes after illness. Coconut milk is made from a blend of coconut fats and fibers in water. The healthy saturated fats and medium chain fatty acids are present in coconut milk (though in smaller amounts than coconut oil). It is a good choice for kids because it contains good amounts of fat, and with a vegetable and meat meal, will provide more calcium than regular milk. You can even try making your own!
Goat milk is more similar to human breast milk, and therefore some theorize that it is a better alternative for human consumption. It does tend to create less of a reaction for some than cow’s milk, and there are cheeses available as well.
Uh yep, it’s a thing! We have actually tried it and my kids love it! Camel milk has a different protein structure from dairy and a whole variety of naturally occurring nutrients. Give it a try, although I’m guessing you’ll want to read more about it first.
The Bottom Line
In the end, dairy is a subject of much debate in the health community. At our house, we consume moderate amounts of raw, aged cheeses and high-fat dairy like butter, raw, heavy cream, and ghee. We don’t drink milk or eat processed dairy foods. We also consume a lot of fish, leafy vegetables and nuts, so we get enough calcium and I supplement Vitamin D in appropriate amounts for the whole family.
Tolerance to dairy varies by person. Some have no trouble with it, and others react heavily. Some people find that they are unable to lose weight while consuming dairy. To find out how your body responds, eliminate it in all forms for a month, and see how you do.
Do you consume dairy? Share below!