Is Dairy Healthy? A Buying Guide and Cautionary Tale

by | Mar 23, 2015 | Blog

Just last night someone asked me why I drink almond milk instead of cow’s milk. I am regularly asked, “Is dairy healthy” or “Is dairy paleo/primal?” and, “Can I eat dairy and still lose weight?” They are complicated questions but totally worth getting into. A few points I want to make right out of the gate: the only person who can tell you if dairy is right for you is YOU. Everyone will have a different tolerance to dairy. The best way to identify your own tolerance is via an elimination test. Basically, cut out all dairy for a couple weeks. Pay attention to how you feel. How does it impact your energy levels? How does it impact your digestion? Are you less bloated? How is your bowel regularity? Have you noticed any changes in your skin? How about your hunger? Your cravings? Your focus and attention? After a couple weeks, slowly add it back in, one form at a time. Continue to pay close attention. Any changes in your skin health? Your energy, hunger, mood, attention, bowel movements, etc? This is how we make decisions about our bodies. By paying attention.

Beyond that, there are definitely poor, good, better and best ways to approach dairy. Some types of dairy products are bad news regardless of whether your goals are fat loss or health. They are just bad news. From there, there’s a spectrum. We’ll get into that spectrum and how you can make the best choices possible if you choose to eat dairy.

Can we start with the basics? What’s the point of milk? Mammals (humans included) produce milk as a means to nourish and accelerate the growth of their young. Milk is a means of bypassing essential hormones, nutrients and antibodies to the baby it was intended to nurture. Milk is filtered blood. Humans are the only mammal that drink the milk of another mammal. Human milk is rich in antibodies, hormones, vitamins and minerals intended to help baby humans thrive. Cow’s milk is rich in antibodies, hormones, vitamins and minerals intended to help a baby cow thrive. There is no magic nutrient in cow’s milk that makes it essential for humans. The vitamins & minerals can be obtained from meats, fruits and vegetables. The hormones and antibodies? I’m gonna go ahead and hold my opinion that we don’t need bovine estrogens, bovine growth hormones and bovine antibodies in our systems. Just a hunch.

But we have to consider reality. Our food supply is vastly different from what it used to be. The milk most of us drink or feed to our children didn’t come from ‘ol Bessie, grazing in a field in the back yard that Pa went out and collected and carried in to the house. Nope, that’s not happening (in most cases) and we have to take a good, long look at how the cows who produce the milk are raised, what they are fed, what they are supplemented with and the processing that takes place afterwards. Those factors all make a really big difference in the dairy products many Americans consume on a regular basis. Here are some of the factors we need to take into consideration when evaluating whether or not conventional dairy products are right for us:

  • What are the cows being fed?
  • What herbicides and pesticides are in their feed?
  • How does their feed impact their hormone production?
  • What hormones are they being treated with?
  • What does the processing of the dairy product do to the nutritive value?
  • What else is being added and how does that impact my body? (Stabilizers, sweeteners, colorings, etc)

So we know that when we buy a gallon milk from SuperMart this isn’t milk carried in via a stainless steel bucket from Sweet Bessie grazing in the grass. This is milk from a factory-farmed animal. These farms are a business and they make more money when the animals produce more milk. So, they are treated with hormones to accelerate their milk production. These are extra hormones that do pass through to their milk. This hormone treatment also accelerates the animals own hormone production so you can think of it as a double whammy. Convention milk is known to be rich in bovine estrogens, testosterone, insulin, growth hormones, progesterone and much more.

These animals are also pumped full of antibiotics to keep them healthier and more productive. You’d better believe that these antibiotics are transferred into their milk. These conventionally raised cows are not allowed to graze freely and eat a grass-rich diet. Nope, they are fed the cheapest food available. Grains and corn. What would happen to a human’s hormone production if eating a diet of corn, grains, hormones and antibiotics? They’d produce way more insulin & stress hormones. This same thing happens to the animals. That is passed through their milk. Beyond that, the feed is often loaded with herbicides, pesticides and run off feces. Yeah….I don’t need to say much more about that.

You might be thinking, “C’mon Elizabeth. For those things to impact my health they have to survive the processing of the product, they have to survive digestion in my body and then they have to be metabolized and absorbed into my body. That’s so unlikely.” Well, if we weren’t talking about milk,  you’d be right. But here’s the thing. We have to go back to what milk is intended for. It is intended to pass along these hormones, antibodies and nutrients to our offspring. So, milk naturally contains protease inhibitors (inhibitors of the enzymes that naturally break down proteins like hormones & antibodies) so that they do in fact survive the harsh conditions of metabolism and so that they can in fact be digested and absorbed. Beyond that, the Standard American Diet is full of digestive irritants (such as gluten and phytates) that compromise our intestinal permeability. What does that mean? The Standard American Diet makes it so the barriers of our intestinal walls don’t protect us as well as they should so stuff that shouldn’t get in is much more likely to. In fact, milk itself contains two major dietary irritants (lactose & casein) that can exacerbate this intestinal permeability. For me personally, I don’t want to take the risk. I can get the vitamins & minerals from other foods without the bovine hormones, pesticides, herbicides and who knows what else.

Then there is the processing of the milk products – things like pasteurization and homogenization. This is a whole other post but I’ll address it briefly by saying that yes, these processes do reduce the amount of potentially harmful bacteria in the dairy product, but along the way they also strip the milk of essential vitamins and other nutrients while modifying the structure of the fats making them oxidized and highly reactive (read: unstable and at high risk of impairing our health and causing inflammation in humans).

Unfortunately, finding high quality dairy products is kind of hard. If you live near a local farm or farmer’s market where you can find dairy products from organic farms with grass-fed, hormone free animals – that’s a fantastic start. You always want to look for dairy products that are hormone free (often labeled as rbgh free, which stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone). You want the product to be from grass fed animals and you get bonus points if the product is pesticide free. The buzz words you want to look for include:

  • Organic
  • Grass-fed
  • Raw
  • Hormone free (rbgh or rbst free)
  • Antibiotic free
  • Pesticide free

If you feel overwhelmed by that list I’d ask yourself: is it worth it? Are you missing out on that much by avoiding it?

I won’t be a hypocrite: I do put cream in my coffee on occasion but there is a cream I buy at Whole Foods that is organic & hormone free from grass fed cows. When I make my own ice cream I use this cream. Do I sometimes have Ben & Jerry’s? I do. Do I sometimes have Cold Stone? I do. But certainly not on the regular because, for me, the risks do not outweigh the rewards.

A few more things to consider:

  • If you choose to eat dairy, choose whole fat dairy. Low fat and fat free options are highly processed and often have added sugars.
  • Limit your consumption of dairy products with added sugars or flavors. These are highly processed foods and the more we can stick to nature, the better.
  • Hard, fermented cheeses are on the “better” spectrum because they are less allergenic due to the healthy bacteria eating up all the lactose during the fermentation process
  • Consider an elimination test to see how you feel without dairy.
  • Eat a diet rich in veggies to get plenty of calcium

As I started this little post I mentioned that there is no hard and fast answer. Your body can tell you what is right for you. Your gut can tell you what is right for you. See how you respond with and without dairy. If you do choose to eat dairy, I encourage you to make choices along the “better” end of the spectrum, seeking out hormone free, grass fed, organic options. Make convention dairy products the exception, not the rule.

I did an entire podcast episode on dairy. Did you catch it? Listen to it here:

The Primal Potential Podcast

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