Dairy: Is it REALLY the devil we think it is?
Dairy. What a controversial topic...and one that doesn't need much of an introduction from me! I think this is one of the most (if not THE most) hotly debated topics in the nutrition and wellness world. More and more people are going dairy-free these days, and preaching the benefits of this choice. But is all blame really to be put on dairy products? Let's examine the evidence...and consider WHY some people may have difficulty digesting dairy foods, as well as what to do about it.
Why is dairy picked on?
Countless sources claim dairy is "mucus forming," "causes cancer by clogging the lymphatic system," "promotes weight gain," "causes osteoporosis," "increases the risk of heart disease due to the saturated fat content," and "screws up your hormones." However, when we consult the evidence, science says otherwise.
What's the truth about dairy?
For many people dairy CAN be mucus-forming, and for these individuals, we want to make sure of two things: 1) they do not have a dairy allergy (more on lactose intolerance below) and 2) they are drinking good-quality (preferably RAW) milk or at least non-homogenized milk. However, the idea that dairy products virtually inhibit lymphatic flow is ridiculous and not true at all. While it IS true that poor digestion can influence how well our bodies are functioning (if we are not getting adequate nutrition from our food, our immune system--aka lymphatic system--will not be strong and fight infections as well as if we are optimal nourished), unless one struggles to digest dairy (again, more on this below), this claim is a non-issue. Drinking real, RAW milk, milk that has all the enzymes and nutrients intact (the way God designed milk to be consumed) is FAR from mucus-forming, and has proven to have remarkable benefits for intestinal and digestive health, and even to reduce the risk of colon cancer (2). Furthermore, for lymph-specific cancers, like breast cancer, the evidence linking dairy consumption to increased cancer risk has been inconclusive: "...the studies reviewed showed no consistent pattern of increased or decreased breast cancer risk with a high consumption of dairy products as a whole or when broken down into high-fat and low-fat dairy products, milk, cheese, or butter." (1) T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study is noted for discovering the "casein/cancer" link...however, his research has proven to be incomplete--he left out the important fact that WHEY protein, the second protein in dairy products, offsets the negative effects of casein, AND that negative effects of casein were only notes in rats being overfed the isolated protein...meaning the negative effects were more likely from the overfeeding than from the casein itself (8). Additionally, a 2013 study done in the UK showed that dairy consumption was actually associated with an overall survival advantage in individuals (3), while also reducing the risk of cardiovascular events and/or diseases (4). Lastly, whey protein (one of the proteins in dairy products) has been shown to boost the production of glutathione, the body's most powerful antioxidant, thereby improving liver detoxification and overall cellular health (10).
Now on to the claim that dairy causes weight gain. As if science hasn't proven THIS one enough, no single food causes weight gain. Weight gain is caused by consuming more calories than you burn, period. We can talk about "metabolic syndrome," "insulin resistance," "adrenal exhaustion," etc., but all of these factors play a minimal role. Decades of nutritional research has, in fact, proven that weight gain or loss comes down to calories in versus calories out. With that said, there's some interesting research on dairy and BMI/body composition. A 2005 study in the International Journal of Obesity showed that, among dieting persons, those who consumed the most dairy products had the lowest BMI by the end of the study (5), while a 2012 study showed that the highest consumption of full-fat dairy products resulted in the most fat loss, while retaining lean muscle mass in dieting individuals (6).
From a hormonal viewpoint, dairy *could* potentially be problematic...but this is true for MANY things for people with hormonal dysregulation (cruciferous vegetables, soy products, gluten, etc.). It is important to note here that, just like anything, the QUALITY of the dairy products you're consuming can make or break your dairy experience. Dairy foods from conventionally-raised animals are not only inhumanely sourced, but are oftentimes loaded with antibiotics and added hormones. For the most healthful, best tasting, and most ethical dairy products, choose dairy products from grass-fed or pastured animals, organic when possible (local is even better!). Raw milk is ideal, but not legal for sale in stores in Virginia (however, you can find an excellent listing of where to buy raw dairy in your local area by clicking THIS link). Other brands I recommend include Nancy's Cultured Dairy products, Redwood Farms Goat Milk products, Fage Yogurt, Skyr, Quark, and Good Culture.
Finally, let's address the osteoporosis claim. This claim (that dairy products leech calcium from your bones and cause osteoporosis or low bone mineral density) is based on the acid-alkaline theory, which has absolutely NO scientific backing whatsoever. In fact, this particular claim has been evaluated...and disproven (Strike one for this claim. Furthermore, countless studies have shown the OPPOSITE: As Chris Kresser notes, "The majority of the evidence indicates that conventional wisdom may actually be right about dairy. Clinical studies have found that drinking milk leads to a positive calcium balance, indicating that more calcium was absorbed than was excreted. Other studies show that phosphate in general – not just from milk – increases calcium retention and improves bone health. Increased dairy consumption is also consistently associated with lower rates of osteoporosis and better bone health." (7) On a personal note, I've always struggled with very low bone density and frequent fractures, even before I went vegan. But when I went vegan in 2013 and cut out dairy from my diet, my BMD dropped 20% in 2 years. And in the 1 year I was raw vegan, it dropped another 10%. I don't know about you, but that's pretty telling...(I will also note that I wasn't necessarily consuming the best quality dairy, either, proving that even my challenged digestive system was reaping SOME benefit from the organic calcium and phosphorous-containing dairy products I was consuming.)
Dairy: a digestive dilemma?
Now, it's no secret that hundreds of thousands of people have trouble digesting dairy products. The common assumption (and myth) going around is that humans lose the ability to digest dairy after age 2, because we stop producing the lactase enzyme. Actually, that's not true at all. Some individuals may lose their ability to make the lactase enzyme, but studies show this has much more to do with their dietary habits and intricacies of their gut microbiome (certain bacteria are needed to make certain enzymes and digest certain foods. No dairy bacteria = no dairy for you!). However, there ARE other factors that can influence one's ability to digest and tolerate dairy. These factors include:
-One's overall digestive "fire"/ability to metabolize sugar: lactose is a sugar, and if certain digestive disorders are an issue (like SIBO, candida, etc.), then dairy may not be pleasant for you.
-One's probiotic bacteria: as I noted above, if you lack the bacteria to make the lactase enzyme/digest dairy (Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, Faecalibacterium, and Roseburia), you will for sure have difficulty digesting dairy foods.
-One may have a casein sensitivity: casein is a much more complex protein to digest than whey.
-One may have a progesterone deficiency or estrogen excess, inhibiting your ability to produce lactase enzymes (9)
So what can we do? There's a couple steps you can take to improve your dairy tolerance is you're having difficulty digesting it:
1) Add enzymes: supplement with a good-quality enzyme supplement that is rich in lactase enzyme.
2) Add a high-quality probiotic supplement: build your microbiome and add helpful lactose-digesting bugs to your gut garden!
3) Add fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and cultured dairy-free foods until you build up a healthy level of lactose-digesting bacteria.
4) Start slowly! Don't jump right in to dairy if you've been away from it for a while. Start with a spoonful and work your way up, always keeping a food and symptom journal of how you're feeling, tracking any changes in mood or bowel habits. NOTE: goat's milk is MUCH easier to digest than cow's milk, as it is lower in A1 beta casein, the more allergenic form of casein protein. Also, try to obtain dairy products from Jersey or Guernsey cows--their milk is void of A1 casein, and only contains A2 casein, the type of casein present in human milk (meaning we will naturally digest it better, since it's already inside of us/we have the gut flora to digest it, assuming we were breast-fed...if not, PROBIOTICS! See below for my faves).
5) Always, always, always ensure you're consuming the best quality dairy you can get a hold of! Don't stress over raw/organic/grass fed if it's totally unavailable to you, but better options are easier to obtain these days, and you can find great dairy options at most grocery stores.
6) CONTROL YOUR THOUGHTS: this one may sound weird, but our thoughts and mindset have a BIG impact when it comes to how we react to foods. If you're sitting down to a cup of yogurt thinking "oh this is gonna blow my stomach up," then it probably will (ever heard of the "self-fulfilling prophecy"? It's real, I promise you). Instead of thinking of all the negatives you've heard regarding dairy, recall the benefits: it's high in calcium, it's a great source of phosphorous, it's rich in vitamins A, D, and K, and it's a wonderful source of gut-healing probiotics...plus, it's one of the most regarded foods in Scripture--why else would God Himself refer to PARADISE (Canaan) as "The land flowing with MILK and honey?!" (Acts 10:15: "Do not call unclean what I have made clean.")
7) Everything in moderation. If I've learned anything through my life (and my coursework/studies), it's that ANYTHING in excess can be harmful, even healthy things. Likewise, anything in moderation can be healthful...even unhealthy things (nourishing your emotional health is real, people). Have this same mindset when you consume dairy...and all foods. Balance is the key to health.
Hope this has been helpful and has helped to rid your mind of some "food fear" when it comes to dairy products. Of course, if you truly are highly allergic to dairy, then by all means--AVOID IT. But the truth is, not all of us need to avoid it (HELLO BIOINDIVIDUALITY!). And unless you DO have a known dairy intolerance or allergy, you may benefit from a modest amount of high-quality dairy foods included in your diet.
Finally, whether you're pro-dairy or anti-dairy, let's all remember to live and let live, and not fall victim to becoming "the food police." We each have a right to nourish our bodies in the way we see fit, and unless we've walked in someone else's shoes and know the reasons they made the nutritional decisions they have, we have no right to advise them. Remember, it's not our job to be nutritional informants. Eat dairy or don't--but don't make others feel guilty for "ruining their health" or "supporting animal cruelty" either way. There's always much more to every story than what we see firsthand :)
Thanks as always for reading. Feel free to email me with any topics you'd like me to address.
Stay healthy, happy, and hopeful,