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Dairy is a tricky topic when it comes to health. We all depend on it in some form as babies. But the question about adults and dairy is a tougher one to answer. Processed junk “food” obviously has no place in a healthy diet, but is dairy healthy?
Dairy products are made up of a mix of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. It does have bioavailable nutrients we need in its raw state. Things like phosphorus. potassium, vitamin A, magnesium, and vitamin D.
Dairy intake can also spike insulin levels thanks to the sugar (lactose) and certain proteins it has. Grass-fed dairy from pastured cows can hardly be compared to the pasteurized conventional dairy on supermarket shelves. Milk isn’t supposed to look watery and slightly blue!
Different forms of dairy include:
- Raw, low-fat, and whole milk
- Ice Cream
- Cottage cheese
- Soft and hard cheeses
- Fermented dairy products like kefir and yogurt
- Lactose-free milk products (everything from ice cream to skim milk)
The Experts Weigh In
So what’s a health-conscious mom to do? Some groups, like the Weston A. Price Foundation, recommend regularly eating dairy. When it’s organic, raw, and grass-fed that is, especially if it’s fermented. Those on the Paleo side point out dairy is relatively new to the human diet.
Then there’s the American Heart Association with a different view. They recommend 2-3 servings of dairy a day, but only fat-free and low-fat options. Conventional dietary guidelines have dairy as its own food group on the My Plate guidelines.
To help understand the quandary, let’s first look at the different kinds of dairy.
Conventional Pasteurized Dairy
Most states have laws requiring any milk sold for humans to be pasteurized. While this kills off any harmful pathogens, it throws the baby out with the bathwater. It also gives it a longer shelf life at the expense of valuable nutrients. Pasteurization kills live (beneficial) milk enzymes and destructures the proteins. This also reduces the vitamins and kills the “live and active” cultures that have health benefits.
Many dietitians tell us to drink dairy milk because it has calcium. However conventional dairy actually isn’t a great calcium source. It’s put to shame by higher food sources, like leafy greens and sardines.
The Problem with Regular Dairy
Dairy marketing is targeted at kids, athletes, and people wanting to slim down. Then there are the elderly who are encouraged to drink a glass of milk for osteoporosis prevention. Fun fact: we need saturated fat to absorb calcium. This means a low-fat diet can put you at a higher risk of osteoporosis!
Growing kids drink more milk than any other group. It’s recommended for their growth and schools give it instead of water. And it gets even worse. In 2010 the government required US schools to ditch whole milk for low-fat and nonfat milk. That’s on top of the artificial dyes and sugar in the flavored milk options.
Despite the fact that kids need healthy fats, milk isn’t the best nutrient source. Certain vegetables and fish offer higher levels of calcium and are easier to absorb. Even breastmilk has less calcium than the same amount of Brazil nuts.
Then there are the added growth hormones and antibiotics. Foods like cheese and yogurt are marketed as healthy snacks for kids. The food dyes and added sugar negates the probiotics in the yogurt.
Since the 1980s, organizations like the American Heart Association have warned against saturated fats. While fats have made a cultural comeback in more recent years, many organizations still disapprove. The idea is that animal foods (including full-fat dairy) cause heart disease and high blood pressure.
To lower the risk of heart disease many healthcare professionals recommend choosing low and no-fat dairy products. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Recent research looked at dairy fat consumption for over 4,000 people for an average of 16 years. Those who ate the most dairy fat had lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Research shows some people in nearly every population worldwide are lactose intolerant. The exception is groups that can trace their ancient roots to herding populations. This widespread intolerance indicates eating (or over-eating) it may be harmful. Maybe our bodies aren’t designed to digest it? … at least in large amounts.
Conversely, when was the last time you heard of someone being allergic to leafy greens?
It should at least warrant a closer look at how it affects our health. Research shows we lose some or all of our ability to digest lactose and casein after age 4. That’s also the age many cultures stop breastfeeding. As a health coach, I’ve found many people unknowingly have a dairy sensitivity or allergy. They’re used to feeling bad and don’t notice how dairy makes them feel.
Here’s an easy way to tell how your body responds to dairy. Try removing it from your diet for a month. Then add it back in and see how you feel. Many report feeling better off of dairy, while some don’t notice a difference. For some, milk consumption can cause bloating and other digestive issues.
Milk Allergies in Children
Milk allergies are now one of the most common allergies in young children. 1 in 13 kids has an allergy and many more have food sensitivities. While some children “outgrow” their allergy this may not happen until the teen years.
Thankfully, we now understand more about the window in which milk allergies form. Landmark studies show giving common allergens to 4-6 month-old babies helps reduce allergy risk by up to 80%. If I had known then what I know now, I would’ve given my kids dairy earlier. You can even get natural supplements for babies that reduce their risk of getting allergies in the first place.
A 2006 Swedish study followed 230 families. They found children on low-fat diets (including low-fat dairy) had 17% more obesity. These children also ate more sugar and had higher insulin resistance. That’s a recipe for type 2 diabetes.
Dairy, especially low-fat milk, can spike blood sugar. Carbs fuel insulin and insulin leads to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. This rise in insulin is caused by the lactose and proteins (casein) in milk. It’s much lower or non-existent in high-fat dairy foods like cream, butter, and ghee.
For many of us already on a sugar roller-coaster, milk isn’t the healthiest drink choice. Even for kids, water is often a better choice. Especially with a meal with healthy fats, protein, and vegetables. We often drink milk for its weight loss benefits, but other foods and drinks are better options
What About the Calcium?
This is often the single most quoted reason for dairy consumption. Many other foods offer more and better sources of calcium. However, even high levels of calcium can actually spur osteoporosis. Our bodies need bioavailable cofactors like vitamins D and K2 to absorb calcium for bone health. For strong bones, dairy may not be the best choice.
Dairy and Vitamin D
Its great Vitamin D is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. We need vitamin D (especially from the sun) to function. Unfortunately, almost all dairy products are vitamin D and/or calcium-fortified. These artificially added sources aren’t easily absorbed by our bodies. You can get your vitamin D levels tested to see if you need to supplement. I recommend getting enough healthy sun exposure for the best results!
The Healthiest Kind of Dairy
Raw, organic, grass-fed, full-fat dairy products are a different type of animal. It’s been demonized because it might have harmful bacteria. It’s also what helped keep our ancestors thriving and healthy.
This type of dairy has a lot more nutrients and live enzymes than pasteurized versions. The full-fat content also mitigates some of the insulin spikes. And it makes the calcium more bioavailable.
In its fermented form, grass-fed dairy is a good source of probiotics and calcium. Fermentation also helps break down the lactose, reducing sugar levels. Butter and ghee have almost no lactose either.
Raw dairy is in its most natural form and isn’t highly processed. If you’re going to consume dairy, go for the most natural form.
Dairy alternatives and plant-based milk substitutes have skyrocketed in recent years. Maybe due to the rise in lactose intolerance and milk allergies. Some people opt for these because of environmental concerns. While good alternatives exist, many have their own problems.
Rice milk is made by soaking and blending rice with water. And a host of other ingredients. While whole milk has a glycemic index of 39, rice milk rings in at a whopping 86 out of 100. It’s a cheap option but doesn’t have much natural nutrition. It’s low in protein and any nutrients it has are added synthetic ones. This along with the big insulin spike means I don’t recommend it.
Soy milk is made with soybeans, water, and a host of other gums, starches, and fillers. Like other unfermented soy products, it has high levels of phytoestrogens. These can cause hormonal imbalances, especially for boys and young women. Most soy is also GMO and heavily sprayed with pesticides.
You can read more about the issues with soy here and why I don’t recommend it.
Almond milk is slightly better than the other two options above. To avoid fillers and sugars, I suggest making it yourself. This is also the cheapest option! If you opt for the store-bought versions, go for unsweetened. Most almond groves are heavily sprayed with pesticides so opt for organic. Cashew or pecan milk is also easy to make with the same method.
The newer kid on the block, many are flocking to oat milk. Like other milk alternatives, the store-bought versions are fortified with vitamins. It has a higher fat and calorie content than almond milk, making it creamier. I mostly stay away from grains (even whole grains) and eat properly prepared grains in moderation. However, oat milk isn’t at the top of my list for healthy eating choices.
Oats are often high in glyphosate residue. They’re also naturally high in maltose, a sugar that causes insulin spikes. Rolled oats don’t offer much nutrition, so homemade oat milk doesn’t have a great nutrient profile.
Macadamia Nut Milk
This is an ultra-creamy alternative to almond milk and high in mono-unsaturated fats. I’ll often make this at home. When I don’t make it, I buy it from Thrive Market).
In my opinion, coconut milk is the best alternative to cow’s milk. They don’t actually have milk in them, but rather a high-electrolyte juice (aka coconut water). It’s great for replenishing electrolytes after illness or a workout.
Coconut milk is made from a blend of coconut fats and fibers. You’ll find healthy fatty acids in coconut milk, but not as much as in coconut oil. It’s also a good choice for kids because of the healthy fats. You can even try making your own!
Canned coconut milk is less processed than the carton in the refrigerator section of the grocery store. It also works differently in recipes.
Goat milk is more like human breast milk so some think it’s a better alternative to drink. It does tend to create less of a reaction for some than cow’s milk. You can find goat milk kefir and cheese at most grocery stores. You might be able to find raw, pastured, or organic goat’s milk from local farmers.
Uh yep, it’s a thing! We’ve 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.
Is Dairy Healthy? The Bottom Line
In the end, dairy is a subject of much debate in the health community. At our house, we eat 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 eat lots of fish, leafy vegetables, and nuts for calcium. For vitamin D we’re sure to get healthy sun exposure.
Tolerance to dairy varies by person. Some have no trouble with it, and others react heavily. Some people find that they’re unable to lose weight on dairy. To find out how your body responds, try getting rid of it completely for a month and see how you do.
Do you eat dairy or use dairy alternatives? Share below!