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There’s a lot o’ buzz in the health/wellness sphere about whether dairy products like milk, cream, and cheese are “healthy.”
If you’ve been following the debate, your answer to the central question of this post—”Is milk bad for you?”—may fluctuate from “yes” to “no” to “maybe” to “I DON’T FREAKING KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING ANYMORE!” in a matter of minutes.
Unfortunately, I can’t provide you with a 100% clear-cut answer because…there isn’t one! Full-fat dairy products from pastured animals contain many nutrients; however, dairy tolerance/intolerance differs from person to person…hence the ongoing debate!
What I will do in this post is clarify the dairy debate’s central arguments and help you identify whether or not you’re intolerant.
So, is milk bad for YOU (personally)? Let’s see if we can find out…
First of all, what constitutes “dairy”?
You may already know the answer to this, but I didn’t until recently.
“Dairy” = food made primarily of or from milk.
Wait…but eggs are always in the dairy section, so aren’t eggs dairy? This is where my own confusion came from!
No, eggs are not dairy. Then why are eggs always grouped with dairy items? I have nooooo idea!
Here’s a list of the most common dairy products:
- Cottage cheese
- Heavy cream
- Sour cream
- Ice cream
- Frozen yogurt
If you’re like me, you think all of the above are delicious! What’s to debate, right??
Let’s dive into the nitty gritty details…
Key Buzzwords in the Dairy Debate…Decoded!
When I first heard the word “casein,” I thought people were saying “casing.” Wrong again!
I had no clue what a casein was. If you’re in that same boat, here’s a summary:
- Caseins and whey are two proteins found in milk.
- There are two types of caseins in milk (and therefore dairy products): A1 beta-casein and A2 beta-casein.
- A1 beta-casein only appeared a few thousand years ago.
- Dairy-intolerant people often react poorly to A1 beta-casein, which is found in cow’s milk.
- Goat’s and sheep’s milk both lack the A1 beta-casein, which is why people are often more tolerant of these.
- The A1 and A2 proteins are extremely similar, so some people are intolerant to both and are thus intolerant to all dairy products.
- Casein is a protein with a very similar molecular structure to gluten; therefore, 50% of people with gluten intolerance are also casein intolerant.
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“Lactose intolerant” is a common phrase. What, exactly, does that mean, and which types of dairy contain lactose? I’m so glad you asked!
Here’s a brief overview:
- Lactose is a sugar present in milk.
- Our bodies use an enzyme called lactase to break down lactose, making it absorbable.
- Humans produce more lactase as babies, which helps them digest the lactose in their mother’s milk. After infancy, many people lose the ability to break down lactose.
- Lactose intolerant people don’t produce enough lactase in their small intestine.
- Cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk all contain similar amounts of lactose.
- Butter, hard cheese, probiotic yogurt, kefir, and (pure) heavy cream are all low in lactose, so some people with lactose intolerance may be able to consume these items in small quantities.
- Lactose intolerant people can usually eat ghee (clarified butter) since it contains only trace amounts of casein and lactose.
- Since milk contains lactose, a form of sugar, it can cause the dreaded insulin spike.
- Full-fat milks and dairy products (like heavy cream and butter) contain less lactose, so they’re less likely to cause a spike in insulin.
- Low- and non-fat milks have a higher lactose/sugar content, causing more of an insulin spike.
Another “hot” topic in health right now is inflammation; dairy is often pinpointed as a highly inflammatory food. Why, you ask? Because…
- Both the sugar (lactose) and proteins (casein and whey) in milk cause inflammation.
- People who are lactose intolerant suffer from extreme internal inflammation after eating dairy.
- A person may produce enough lactase but still react poorly to one—or both!—of the proteins found in milk (casein and/or whey). This person may experience inflammation from all types of milk.
- Or, a person may react poorly solely to the A1 beta-casein. This person may experience inflammation after eating/drinking dairy made from cow’s milk, but not from dairy made from goat’s or sheep’s milk.
5) Hormones and Antibiotics
- American dairy farmers inject cows with a genetically engineered growth hormone called rBGH to increase milk production.
- This forced increase in milk production can cause an udder infection in cows called mastitis, which farmers treat using antibiotics.
- These antibiotics can (obviously) make their way into our dairy products and contribute to the global antibiotic resistance epidemic. Yikes! (To learn more about this topic, read my prior post “6 Ways To Prevent Personal And Widespread Antibiotic Resistance.”)
- Therefore, the quality of any dairy we consume matters; pastured, organic, and raw milk all come from animals that have not been treated with rBGH.
6) Fat Composition
I think it’s time for a visual aid! Consider this infographic from joyoushealth.com:
As you can see, cow’s milk is lower in fat but contains larger and more-difficult-to-digest fat globules.
Sheep/goat’s milk is higher in fat (in the form of medium-chain triglycerides), but each contains smaller, more easily digested fat particles.
Think you must drink milk/eat dairy to get your calcium fix? Think again!
Contrary to claims made by milk/dairy advertisers, many foods besides milk contain high levels of absorbable calcium.
Here are a few:
- Bone broth
- Leafy greens
- Fish with bones (canned)
- Almond butter
- Chia seeds
- Sesame seeds
8) Raw vs. Pasteurized
- Raw milk is unpasteurized and…raw! This is tougher to find because federal law prohibits the sale of raw milk across state lines.
- Pasteurized milk has been processed using a heating/cooling process.
- Some people who can’t tolerate pasteurized milk can tolerate raw milk.
- Many people swear by raw milk; others avoid it because it’s more likely to contain harmful bacteria.
- Farmers and consumers continue to debate the laws against raw milk; this is a great podcast episode about the topic if you’re interested in learning more!
9) Nutrition Facts
Dairy products contain many nutrients.
- Calcium: 276 mg — 28% of the RDI
- Vitamin D: 24% of the RDI
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2): 26% of the RDI
- Vitamin B12: 18% of the RDI
- Potassium: 10% of the RDI
- Phosphorus: 22% of the RDI
- Decent amounts of vitamin A, vitamins B1 and B6, selenium, zinc and magnesium
- 146 calories
- 8 grams of fat
- 8 grams of protein
- 13 grams of carbs
So…is milk bad for you? What about cheese? Cream?
As mentioned, the answer to these questions depends on your tolerance.
If you tolerate milk and dairy, then it may be okay for you to consume them!
If you do decide to eat dairy, be sure to avoid non- and low-fat varieties because they contain more lactose (sugar).
Also, remember that quality matters. It’s allllllways better to consume dairy from pastured, 100% grass-fed cows, goats, and/or sheep.
One issue you may run into is that you may think you tolerate dairy when really you don’t. Since cheese and ice cream and yogurt and sour cream are all soooo delicious, it’s easy to lie to ourselves and pretend that we feel great and everything is A-OK when it’s actually not.
The best way to determine any food intolerance is to remove the food in question from your diet for 30-ish days. After 30 days, reintroduce it. In the reintroduction stage, pay close attention to your symptoms. If you notice any negative side effects—nausea, swollen joints, muscle aches, etc.—you can assume you have an intolerance/sensitivity to the food in question.
One popular elimination diet is Whole30, which I tried and loved. Read about my experience with Whole30 here!
Another reason to reconsider the presence of dairy in your diet is the quality of your skin. If you suffer from persistent cystic acne (or even just an obnoxious breakout here and there), dairy may be the culprit. In fact, if you Google “eliminate dairy clear skin,” you’ll find success story after success story after success story!
My Personal Story
After eliminating all dairy for a month during Whole30, I discovered that I feel pretty gross and get breakouts after eating cow’s milk dairy.
However, when I eat small quantities of goat’s or sheep’s milk dairy products here and there, I feel fine and my skin remains clear.
Knowing this valuable information caused me to change my dietary habits. My dairy consumption now looks something like this:
- I often eat/drink/use:
- Goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses
- Nut milk (click here for my simple, creamy cashew/almond milk recipe!)
- I rarely eat/drink/use:
- Cow’s milk cheese
- Butter (since I use ghee in my cooking, there’s no need to use butter)
- Heavy cream
- Ice cream
- Frozen yogurt
- I never drink:
- Dairy milk (because nut milk is incredible…so what’s the point??)
Thus, I’m not super strict about my dairy consumption, but I do mostly avoid dairy made from cow’s milk.
If you discover you have a sensitivity (or intolerance) to all forms of dairy…fear not! These are some delicious dairy alternatives:
- Almond milk
- Coconut milk
- Coconut cream
- Cashew milk
- Hemp milk
- Cheeses, yogurts, ice creams, etc., made from all of the above!
Eating cheese and yogurt made from almond milk may sound weird at first, but companies like Kite Hill have drummed up some delicious products!
One final note: If you decide to buy one of the milks listed above, be sure it’s free from unnecessary additives like carrageenan and soy lecithin! In my experience, the non-refrigerated, boxed versions of the above milks contain more preservatives than their refrigerated counterparts. Be sure to read the ingredient label of any milk before buying!
Bottom line: Is milk bad for you? The answer to this question is really something you have to figure out for yourself! While full-fat dairy products from pastured animals can have a place in a healthy diet, they can also cause a whole slew of issues.
Questions? Thoughts?? Please share ’em below!
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