Is eating dairy unhealthy?
Whether or not you should eat dairy products is one of the things that people most ask me about as a nutritional consultant.
There’s the argument from the dairy industry and conventional medicine that, if you don’t eat dairy, you’re putting your bone health at risk.
Other health professionals (often in what we used to call ‘alternative medicine’) have long argued that consuming dairy products causes low-grade inflammation in the body and may increase the risk of cancer, drain your energy and give you spots.
Vegans also argue that eating dairy isn't natural for humans, and that dairy farming involves cruelty to animals which many of us are unaware of. It also significantly contributes to global warming.
In this newsletter, I want to give you all the details on what’s good and not so good about dairy, and the positive benefits of giving up milk-based products. If you’re even considering ditching dairy, there is one really important thing you need to do. I’ll tell you about that, too.
1. Why should I eat dairy?
Dairy products contain a range of beneficial nutrients. Of course, there’s calcium, but it’s also a good source of protein, Vitamins D and B12 and phosphorus.
Let’s talk about the calcium in dairy, because this is the thing you are told you will miss most if you stop consuming milk-based products.
When you get past the age of thirty, your bones are being broken down faster than new bones are being made, so you need to make sure you’re getting good levels of this important mineral to strengthen your frame. Although you can get calcium from other foods, the reason why dairy is touted as being the best source is that the calcium from milk-based foods is more readily absorbed by the body*. Skip down to the bottom of the story to find out how you can safely choose not to have dairy in your life. There are some specific foods you will need to eat.
Cow’s milk also contains the omega 6 fatty acid Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which is considered to have health benefits. It is also contained in grass-fed beef. Studies suggest CLA can help with weight loss, and that people who have lots of foods containing CLA have a lower risk of diabetes and cancer**.
2. Is dairy bad for you?
The bottom line is that human beings weren’t designed to drink milk of any kind after the weaning period which occurs at around two years old. Not human milk, and certainly not milk from cows, sheep or goats. Some cultures have embraced drinking dairy products, and people in those cultures have genetically adapted to tolerate it. Others haven't and for those people in particular, eating dairy can cause problems. Two of the biggest challenges associated with dairy are digestive and skin issues.
Let’s have a look at the bad stuff in dairy products…..
- They contain growth hormones, which may be linked to increased risk of disease and some cancers
- They also contain other hormones like oestrogen. In small amounts admittedly, but oestrogen is oestrogen. Some cancers and medical conditions like endometriosis, PMS, fibroids and even menopause are linked to a dominance of oestrogen compared to progesterone
- Furthermore, dairy has more naturally occurring sugar than you’d think. A cup of milk has about three teaspoons. Sugar, I hear you say. Where? The type of sugar in milk is called lactose. You might be tempted to reply, ‘I’ll have lactose-free milk then’. Lactose-free milk has had the milk sugars broken into galactose and glucose. Same amount of sugars, different currency. However, the milk sugar is often the ingredient people do not tolerate, so a lactose-free milk can provide the benefits of regular milk without the dodgy tummy.
- Non-organic dairy products contain antibiotic residues, so if you are eating dairy, make sure it’s organic.
- Consuming dairy products may raise your risk of certain types of cancer, but the evidence occasionally contradicts itself. You can read more where you see this sign at the bottom***.
- And if you are a milk drinker, you’re more likely to get spots or have acne. **** The research stacks up to show that this is the case. Scientists aren’t 100% sure of the reason why dairy triggers acne, but it’s likely to be something to do with the hormones present in milk. Another theory is that dairy products disrupt insulin levels and make skin more prone to acne.
3. How will I feel if I give up dairy?
Everyone will react a little differently but these are some of the reported benefits of ditching dairy:-
- Less nasal congestion and stuffiness
- Better sleep
- Clearer skin
- Increased energy
- Weight loss
- Reduction in bloating and other digestive symptoms
- Fewer headaches
- I’m not going to go into the impact on the environment of consuming less dairy, and the animal welfare argument – there are too many variables so I’ll just leave you to ponder that.
4. What are the alternatives if I don’t want to eat dairy?
- These can be used in porridge, overnight oats, smoothies and the like
- My favourite non-dairy milk is whole organic MYLK by Rebel Kitchen, along with almond, coconut, oat and rice milks – pretty much in that order and largely based on levels of naturally occurring sugars. Be sure to choose unsweetened varieties.
- The foods you need to eat when you’re giving up dairy
o You’ll be missing out on calcium for bones, so you’ll need to find it elsewhere. That means consuming more of these foods on a daily basis: cabbage, spring greens, bok choy, kale, broccoli, okra, almonds, soya (edamame) beans and tofu, and fish where you eat the bones (like tinned sardines).
§ The RDA (recommended daily allowance or how much a healthy person needs to eat to avoid disease) is 700mg a day
§ A fist-sized serving of tofu can contain between 200mg and 800mg
§ One serving in a stir fry at night could get you your calcium fix for the day
§ A small tin of sardines = 351 mg
§ 2 tbsp of sesame seeds = 280 mg
§ Soya milk fortified with calcium contains the same amount as a glass of cow’s milk – about 250 mg in a 200 ml glass of milk
§ 2 tbsp chia seeds = 179 mg
§ One cup of cooked kale = 177 mg but if it is raw (because less fits in the cup), it’s 53 mg
§ A small handful (about 35 g) almonds = 100 mg
§ One cup of broccoli = 43mg
o Should I eat more spinach to increase calcium?
§ Some dark green leafy vegetables like spinach or chard contain oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and can mess with your body’s ability to absorb it properly
§ So it turns out that Popeye was eating the wrong kind of greens because, even though spinach technically has a lot of calcium, it’s only a tenth as bioavailable as that from milk due to the oxalic acid
5. But I truly do not feel that I give up dairy, particularly cheese…
§ You don't have to! If you love pizza, try giving up dairy but having an exception for an occasional treat
§ Although going completely dairy-free would be the goal, even taking most of the dairy out of your diet can still bring benefits
§ For most dairy products, there is an excellent dairy alternative
§ Some are really surprising
§ I wonder whether you have experienced the delicious creaminess a handful of cashews can bring to a soup, for example?
§ However, there are some groups of people who really should give it a miss
§ Those who have an intolerance to dairy would do well to remove it entirely for at least three months to heal the gut
§ And if you have a true allergy to dairy, ie IgE, you would be wise to steer clear of it forever