Let’s be clear: dairy consumption is NOT a necessary component of a healthy diet. After all, we only started domesticating cows about 10,000 years ago, yet somehow we’ve managed to survive as a species. Clearly, there’s no biological requirement for milk.
Dairy causes a lot of problems for a lot of people and for them, it’s best avoided. For starters, you’ve got lactose – a milk sugar that as much as 75% of the world’s population has some degree of intolerance to. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that most of us stop producing lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose) during our first few years of life.
Then there’s the betacellulin issue. This growth factor – along with the insulin spike milk induces – makes dairy potentially carcinogenic. Add to that the dose of antibiotics, steroids, and growth hormones commonly used on corporate farms and it makes you wonder how the stuff came to be so widely consumed in the first place.
Although the Dairy Council has been pushing the purported benefits of milk for decades, there’s never been much science to support their claims. The truth is that the dairy lobby exerts tremendous power on its friends in Congress and that influence drives the government’s dietary guidelines, same as it does with grain. Not surprisingly, studies funded by the food industry show benefits 8 times more than those funded by independent groups.
Increasingly, assumptions about dairy are being challenged. Harvard scientists Drs. David Ludwig and Walter Willett recently asserted in an editorial in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics that milk may not help you grow strong bones and might actually promote weight gain, as well as cancer. Milk is also one of the most frequent triggers to acne and research has shown that people with autism spectrum disorder have an abnormal immune response to casein, a dairy protein. Casein is one of the most common allergies and it is known to cause many of the same symptoms as gluten.
The fact is, you can get adequate calcium from other sources and in a form whose absorption is as good or better than that of milk. These include nuts, leafy greens, beans, and certain types of fish. Many green vegetables have absorption rates of more than 50 percent, compared with about 32 percent for milk. In 1994, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported calcium absorption to be 52.6 percent for broccoli, 63.8 percent for Brussels sprouts, 57.8 percent for mustard greens, and 51.6 percent for turnip greens. The fractional calcium absorption rate from kale is approximately 40 to 59 percent.
If you’re relying on milk to stave off osteoporosis, I’ve got some disappointing news: bone metabolism has much more to do with calcium balance than it does calcium intake. Anyone concerned with bone loss would be better served focusing on the factors that cause calcium to leach from the bones: caffeine, tobacco, and physical inactivity. A 1992 review revealed that fracture rates vary considerably between different countries and that calcium intake offers no protective role.
Again, humans evolved on a diet free of milk. But if you actually enjoy drinking the stuff and can’t imagine life without it, there are several things you can do to mitigate any potential adverse effects:
1. Buy only FULL-FAT dairy products.
Reduced-fat milk is high in sugar and is likely contributing to obesity, according to Harvard professor of pediatrics David Ludwig, MD. One cup of reduced-fat milk contains more sugar than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and almost as much as a chocolate chip cookie. Those 12 grams of sugar would put a child over the daily limit of sugar consumption recommended by government agencies.
The USDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) both advise children to consume 3 glasses of milk per day but those guidelines were intended to discourage kids from drinking sugary beverages other than reduced fat milk. According to Willett and Ludwig, those guidelines need to be reexamined and the nearly 400 calories in those 3 glasses could be spent elsewhere. They point out that studies show that a “primary focus on reducing fat intake does not facilitate weight loss compared with other dietary strategies.” Since low fat foods are less filling, we tend to compensate with increased consumption of snack foods and that “this substitution of refined starch and sugar for fat might actually cause weight gain.” There’s evidence that high-glycemic-index carbohydrates – such as refined grains, sugary beverages and desserts like cookies – are associated with weight gain while whole milk is not. A 2013 study in the European Journal of Nutrition concluded that high-fat dairy consumption is INVERSELY associated with obesity.
Bottom line: there’s no evidence that dietary fat increases heart disease risk or weight gain and overwhelming evidence that sugar destroys health. If you choose to drink milk, always opt for full-fat. The fat is naturally occurring and assists with the absorption and utilization of critical fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K. Plus, whole milk just tastes better, but is rarely served. Schools have recently been debating the idea of offering flavored milk to students, acknowledging that kids don’t enjoy low-fat or skim versions. The flavored milk obviously is made more palatable with either sugar or artificial sweeteners, thereby making it nutritionally inferior and more dangerous to a child’s health and his or her waistline.
2. Choose grass-fed.
Milk from grass-fed cows provides much higher levels of a potent anti-cancer compound called conjugated linoleic acid or CLA. As I mentioned above, milk contains a tumor-promoter known as betacellulin. The studies that have linked dairy consumption to cancer almost always use skim or reduced-fat milk; whole milk doesn’t seem to increase cancer risk and the proposed theory is that the anti-tumorogenic effects of the CLA somehow cancel out the carcinogenic properties of betacellulin.
3. Go raw.
Raw means unpasteurized. Pasteurization kills all that’s good about a food. The high heat involved in the process destroys nutrients, as well as naturally-occurring enzymes, making it harder to digest. Raw milk production is tightly regulated but a growing movement is making it more accessible. Check here for a local provider. Cheeses made from raw milk are easier to procure. I’ve seen several varieties at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, as well as some regional supermarkets.
4. Consider milk from goats or sheep.
Those who have trouble digesting cow’s milk often have an easier time processing these alternatives. Goat’s milk is closest in structure to human milk. The fat globules are smaller, which aids in digestion. In a recent study of infants allergic to cow’s milk, 93% were able to drink goat’s milk with absolutely no allergic reaction. The ease of digestibility is also due to the high amount of medium-chain fatty acids (goat has 35% compared to cow’s 17%). Sheep also produce naturally homogenized milk. That means smaller fat globules and more medium-chain fatty acids. This aids in digestion, just like goat’s milk.
Goat and sheep milk are also both nutritionally superior to cow’s milk. Most notably, both goat and sheep milk have even higher levels of calcium than cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is also higher in zinc and selenium, while sheep’s milk is higher in vitamin B12, vitamin C, folate and magnesium than cow milk. On top of that, many of the nutrients in goat and sheep’s milk, like calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, are more bioavailable, meaning they’re in a form that is easier for your body to absorb and use. Finally, sheep and goats are almost always raised on grass and are less likely to have been given antibiotics and hormones.
5. Look for A2 milk.
For people who aren’t lactose intolerant, but have a dairy allergy, the culprit is often the A1 type of casein protein found in cow’s milk. Goat and sheep’s milk contains the A2 type of casein protein, which is far less inflammatory and closer to the proteins found in human breast milk (the only dairy everybody is specifically designed to handle), so it’s much less likely to trigger allergies and inflammation. The theory is that loose connections in the gut (think tears in a coffee filter) allow rogue proteins to enter the bloodstream and run amok. The body brings in immune cells to fight them off, creating inflammation that manifests as swelling and pain – telltale symptoms of autoimmune diseases like arthritis, diabetes, and autism.
Though far from conclusive, more than 100 studies have suggested links between the A1 protein and a range of health issues from heart disease to eczema and asthma. A 2009 study documented that formula-fed infants developed muscle tone and psychomotor skills more slowly than infants that were fed A2-only breast milk. When digested, A1 beta-casein (but not the A2 variety) releases beta-casomorphin7 (BCM7), an opioid with a structure similar to that of morphine. Studies increasingly point to BCM7 as a troublemaker. Recent tests, for example, have shown that blood from people with autism and schizophrenia contains higher-than-average amounts of BCM7. In gut cells, BCM7 causes a chain reaction that creates a shortage of antioxidants in neural cells, a condition that other research has tied to autism.
For now, in the U.S., the best way to get milk with a higher-than-average A2 content is to buy it from a dairy that uses A2 dominant cow breeds, such as the Jersey, the Guernsey, or the Normande. In northern California, for example, Sonoma Country’s San Benoit Creamery specifies on its milk labels that it uses “pastured Jersey cows.” From a taste standpoint, many people say that A2 cow breeds produce milk that is thicker, creamier, and more enjoyable than what you’ll typically find at the supermarket. Jersey milk also provides the most nutrition per given unit of volume, with more vitamins A and B1 than Holstein milk and extremely high levels of B2 (riboflavin). Jersey milk also contains 18% more protein, 20% more calcium and 25% more butterfat than average.
In my practice, the inclusion of dairy in a diet is highly individual and always based on the client’s goals and tolerance level. Dairy foods usually come with a high energy density. This might be desirable for growing babies, athletes looking to refuel or bodybuilders who want to spike insulin for muscle gain. Foods with a high energy density are obviously not helpful when the focus is fat loss.
Beyond physique and performance considerations, I recommend a personal assessment of how dairy affects your body. This requires a strict elimination phase of at least several weeks, though I’ve read that casein can linger in the bloodstream and lymphatic system for months. When you re-introduce dairy to the diet, follow the guidelines above and take note of symptoms such as congestion, eczema, and snoring.
My own dairy consumption these days is limited to an occasional sprinkling of feta on a Greek salad, an infrequent scoop of whey protein in a smoothie or some homemade nut butter and the butter I blend into my coffee during stretches of the year when I aim for ketosis. The feta I use is real feta, meaning from goat and/or sheep’s milk and imported from countries with a far less-adulterated food supply. I view whey differently than other forms of dairy, as it has documented immune-boosting benefits and is the tried-and-true winner when it comes to muscle-building and fat-burning. Plus, I choose the isolate form, which has the lactose removed. The butter is the good stuff – cultured and from the milk of pastured cows and therefore a good source of health-promoting fatty acids, butyrate, and vitamin K. Lately, though, I’ve been replacing more of the butter with clarified butter or ghee, which is free of all but trace amounts of casein and lactose. Any exposure beyond small amounts of these foods and I get a phlegmy feeling in my throat, an indication to me that the stuff doesn’t belong in my body. Interestingly, I’ve heard that professional singers avoid milk products prior to performances.
I don’t miss dairy. I don’t crave it. And there is no shortage of substitutes these days, like the Kite Hill version of cream cheese that I love dipping my sprouted almonds in. My three-year old has never had a sip of cow’s milk and by every measure he’s a healthy, happy, thriving toddler. Instead, our family relies on supplements, almonds, seeds, salmon, broccoli, squash, leafy greens, and unsweetened plant-based milk and yogurt alternatives – which often provide more calcium than cow’s milk – putting us over the recommended intake most days. We fill in the gaps with supplements. Based on my research, we just don’t know for sure if dairy is appropriate for regular consumption by humans and there are too many questions, too many concerns, too many negative associations.