Dairy has become quite a controversial topic over the years, particularly as the Paleo movement spreads. There is certainly a lot of conflicting research and difference of opinions surrounding the topic. Conventional medicine says dairy is essential for bone health. Alternative health practices claim dairy actually CAUSES osteoporosis! It’s not surprising so many people are confused about nutrition.
Weighing up the scientific evidence and looking at the production of milk and dairy, here are my opinions…
Please note: when I refer to dairy, I’m talking about milk, real cheese and natural yoghurt. None of this low-fat, flavoured yoghurt or plastic cheese slices crap.
It DOES improve bone strength
This is where conventional wisdom gets it right. I like to think I have a well-rounded approach to nutrition and look at evidence from both the holistic and conventional camps. Quite often, its conventional medicine that is behind the eight-ball when it comes to health. This time however, I’m siding with conventional science.
A theory that is popular amongst the alternative health and Paleo communities, claim dairy contributes to osteoporosis by ‘acidifying’ the body. As a result, minerals such as calcium (the body’s most potent alkaliser) are drawn from the bones to restore the pH balance in the body, which in turn reduces bone density. As far as I’m aware, there really isn’t any scientific research to support this claim. In fact, there are a couple of studies to show that dairy actually leaves an alkaline ‘ash’ in the body, as opposed to an ‘acid ash’. I won’t go into more detail but Kris Kresser writes about this here
On the other hand, clinical studies have found that drinking milk has a positive effect on calcium balance, meaning more calcium is absorbed than excreted. Increased dairy consumption has been consistently associated with lower rates of osteoporosis and better bone health.
This, however, does not mean everyone should start sporting a milk mustache straight away. Which leads me on to my next point…
It Is NOT For Everyone
Not everyone can stomach dairy. In fact, the vast majority of humans naturally stop producing large amounts of lactase – the enzyme that is needed to properly digest the milk sugar, lactose – somewhere between the ages of two and five. This REVIEW found that minimal intolerances occur in children under 6, but lactose intolerance increases with age in most populations. Many health communities will strongly argue that this is a sign we weren’t supposed to consume milk from other species. But humans have been consuming milk for over 40,000 years. If we weren’t supposed to drink it, I’m sure we would have figured it out by now. The difference is that our ancestors drank real milk, not pasteurised and homogenised milk, but I’ll save that for my next point.
So how can milk and dairy be ok for some but cause issues for others?
There are many reasons but primary lactose intolerance is genetically determined, occurring in a large proportion of people with African, Asian or Hispanic ancestry. The condition is also common among those of Mediterranean or Southern European descent. This is why eating traditional foods that suit your genes is critical to your health.
Other forms of secondary lactose intolerance may be developed from surgery affecting the gastrointestinal system, gut infections, bacterial overgrowth or Crohn’s disease. Often by treating the root cause, the ability to tolerate dairy can be restored, though it can take a long time.
If you have any gastrointestinal issues such as bloating and diarrhea or suffer skin issues like eczema, this may be a sign of dairy intolerance.
When it comes to food intolerances, everyone is different and a properly controlled elimination diet or assessment should be conducted. (It’s recommended to work with a dietitian or nutritionist for an appropriate treatment protocol).
QUALITY is Paramount
Our pasteurized and homogenized milk and dairy supply is far from a natural, whole food. The process of pasteurization heats the milk to very high temperatures to remove impurities, but it also destroys its heat-sensitive nutrients and enzymes that may be important to help us digest the milk.
Factory farms also use antibiotics due to the terrible conditions these cows are living in. This constant low dose of antibiotics we are drip-feeding ourselves through the milk supply can affect our own micro-flora (the bacteria in your gut that is the cornerstone to your health – read about it here).
Inflammation – Conventional dairy cows are fed an unnatural diet of grain, they do not graze on grass. Milk produced from grain-fed cows is higher in inflammatory omega-6 fats and lower in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Conversely, grass-fed cows have much higher levels of omega-3s.
To sum it up, the source and quality of your dairy products is paramount. Despite having secondary Lactose Intolerance myself (from surgery and subsequent gut infection), I still wouldn’t consume much dairy due to the above reasons.
Always choose organic (as they cannot use antibiotics) and grass-fed dairy wherever possible.
It is NOT an Essential Part Of A Healthy Diet
Calcium is the main focus for the health industry and government when it comes to bone health. It is debatable as to how much calcium is required and recommended daily intakes range from 600-800mg to 1000-1300mg per day. While calcium remains controversial and the jury is still out, I generally recommend my clients to aim for 800mg per day from food.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to meet your calcium requirements without dairy products.
This is a table listing the best food sources for calcium, with the highest amounts listed at the top:
As you can see, some of the highest calcium-containing foods are not dairy foods, including sesame seeds, sardines and spinach.
By including a tin of bone-in sardines and 2 cups of leafy greens, you are already at 840mg of calcium. Easy.
Other great sources of calcium that are not on this list include:
· Bone broth
· Sea vegetables like seaweed and kombu
· Tahini – a paste made from sesame seeds, its great in salad dressings!
Bone health is not all about calcium. There are also many other nutrients to consider. These include Magnesium, Vitamin K2, Vitamin D and Vitamin A. As a result, we cannot solely focus on calcium and dairy for bone health.
Ultimately, the role of dairy in one’s diet is highly individual. If you’re a dairy lover with no issues, small amounts of organic, full fat dairy from grass-fed cows can be included in a healthy diet.
Other examples of better dairy choices include:
· Greek yoghurt
· Goats cheese
· Hard cheeses
· Butter (Grass-fed)
The fermentation process of dairy foods like yoghurt and cheese means that a large proportion of the lactose has been broken down. Many people find they can’t drink milk but have no issues with small amounts of cheese and yoghurt.
Some good non-dairy options include coconut milk, fresh almond milk (with no added sugar) and there are some seriously yummy coconut yoghurts in most health food stores.
To summarise, dairy is not a crucial part of a healthy diet. Bone health is reliant on a number of different factors but dairy consumption is not necessarily one of them. Superior dairy products may be incorporated into a healthy diet for those that can tolerate it and there are certainly some better choices than others.