Over the last decade or so, dairy has been the subject of much debate in our society. We have alternative practitioners and nutrition-world rock stars preaching the dangers of dairy and how it is totally unnatural to drink the milk of another species. On the other hand, we have the conventional medical community, as well as the federal government food pyramid, instructing us to consume 2-3 servings per day to satisfy our daily calcium requirement in preventing osteoporosis. Additionally, we have USDA-managed programs pumping big dollars ($550 million advertising spends) into campaigns urging Americans to buy more animal foods - examples include the (in)famous "Got Milk?" campaign and the widespread slogan: "Milk. It does a body good." With all these conflicting messages coming at us left and right, it is no surprise so many of us are confused about whether or not consuming dairy is a good choice.
Agribusiness has become a scarily powerful influence over our everyday food-buying choices through its manipulating health claims, artificially low prices, and heavy control over legislation and regulation. I find it frightening how much control animal producers have over what consumers buy and believe to be healthy. With around 60% of the world somewhat lactose intolerant, I think it is important for us all to be informed about the potential health risks associated with consuming dairy so that we can decide for ourselves what to eat rather than being told (manipulated?) by the government and/or dairy industry.
Below are some considerations as to why conventional dairy may be doing more harm than good:
It's contrary to the laws of nature
Milk from a cow is designed to make a newborn calf grow rapidly in its early life until its ready for solid food. Those who believe consuming dairy is a big nutritional mistake point towards the fact that humans are the only species who drinks milk past the infancy stage and the only species who consumes the milk of another animal.
It's inflammatory for those with a dairy sensitivity or intolerance
For a large percentage of the population, dairy is difficult to digest and causes an inflammatory response in the body, resulting in various reactions such as allergies, eczema, asthma, arthritis, acne and/or digestive issues (bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea). The body is either responding to the sugar (lactose) or the proteins (casein and whey) in dairy. Those who are lactose intolerant don't produce the lactase enzyme which is required to break down lactose and therefore experience marked digestive distress whenever they consume any kind of dairy. People who do have the lactase enzyme but still don't tolerate dairy are most probably sensitive to casein which makes up 87% of the cow's milk protein. Casein has a similar structure to gluten and half the people who are gluten intolerant are also casein intolerant. The biggest worry, however, is the fact that studies have shown a strong correlation between casein intake and the promotion of cancer cell growth when exposed to carcinogens.
It's acid-forming in the body
Our bodies like to maintain a neutral pH balance (not too acidic and not too alkaline). When dairy is digested, it leaves an acidic residue. The body has to compensate for the acidity by extracting the alkaline "buffer minerals" - calcium, magnesium, and potassium - out of the bones to restore its delicate pH balance. This continuous process weakens our bones and can lead to osteoporosis as a long term effect. Research has shown that countries with the highest rate of dairy consumption also have the highest rate of osteoporosis (ahem, USA..). Not only can an overly acidic body detrimentally affect your bones, but it can have direct effect on your skin (think wrinkles, premature lines, acne, and under-eye circles) making dairy anything but a beauty food.
Disgusting word, yes, but mucus is actually a good thing, as long as you don't have too much of it. Mucus is a natural secretion and coats anything you ingest, trapping toxins and helping them leave the body. When you consume dairy products, the body has a difficult time digesting them and has to produce extra mucus to get rid of them. Excessive mucus can begin to build up on the walls of the intestines which clogs you up and contributes to unfortunate side effects such as phlegm, acne and weight gain.
It's often full of hormones and antibiotics
The sad reality is that the American factory farm is a far cry from the picture most of us have in our heads of happy cows grazing in open green pastures. Without going into too much detail (it's too horrific!), the majority of commercial dairy cows are kept in individual stalls on cement floors, hooked up to milking machines, and forced to produce milk ten months of the year. To do this, they have to be injected with a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production. This leads to higher hormones levels in dairy milk which exacerbates increased estrogen levels in humans. The cows often develop infections due to their unsanitary living conditions and therefore are fed a constant supply of antibiotics from birth until time of slaughter. These antibiotics inevitably seep into our dairy products. Studies show that milk contains traces of up to 80 different antibiotics! Holy cow! Pardon the pun :)
It's more susceptible to contamination and spoilage
Pasteurization is the process of heat treating milk to kill bacteria. This wipes out all bacteria - the good and the bad. Without friendly bacteria, the milk is more susceptible to contamination. Additionally, this process diminishes the vitamin, mineral and enzyme content of the milk making it less nutrient-dense and harder to digest. We have been lead to believe milk is an awesome source of calcium when, in reality, pasteurization makes the calcium inaccessible by destroying the necessary enzymes in the milk which are needed for calcium absorption. Homogenization is the process that breaks up the fat globules and evenly distributes them through the milk so they don't rise to the top. This process leads to greater susceptibility to spoilage and is linked to heart disease and atherosclerosis.
It's unsustainable and bad for the environment
The world's demand for animal foods is far greater than its supply. Two acres of rainforest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them, and it takes up to 100 x more water and 5 x more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein. Plainly speaking, we are just going to run out of resources pretty soon. Making matters worse, animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming and pollution. Globally, agriculture accounts for 60% of nitrous oxide and 50% methane emissions, and the dairy sector contributes 4% to the total greenhouse gases worldwide. Factory farms produce an enormous about of waste which has to go somewhere and, unfortunately, that somewhere is into our lakes, rivers and streams.
Is all dairy scary?
Once you understand how commercial dairy is produced/processed and its effect on the environment, it's easy to see why commercial milk is not a healthy choice for humans, animals, or the planet. The question now is whether or not all dairy is bad and if there are other more natural and sustainable sources of dairy that are good for us.
If you aren't casein-intolerant, an alternative to conventional dairy may be "real milk" = organic raw milk. This is full fat, unprocessed milk from pasture-fed cows which have not been pumped full of hormones or antibiotics. Many consider real milk to be one of the most ideal foods nature provides and one that has nourished civilizations for thousands of years. Organic raw milk has many health benefits that pasteurized milk lacks such as vitamins A and D, calcium and several of the B vitamins. It is a complete source of protein and loaded with helpful enzymes needed for nutrient digestion and absorption. Raw milk also contains friendly bacteria that contributes to healthy flora in the intestines. It is milk is easier to digest so those who are lactose intolerant may be able to consume raw milk as it contains the lactase enzyme needed to break down lactose that their body is unable to produce.
With all that information in mind, the decision is entirely up to you as to whether or not consuming dairy works for you and your body. I personally choose not to have dairy, "real" or conventional, in my diet at the moment. I certainly haven't written it off forever (remember our bodies and our dietary requirements are constantly changing!) but for now, it doesn't work for me. I have been allergy tested and scored positive on having a significant cow's milk sensitivity. This is not surprising as few people really can tolerate the chemical-laden beverage that is conventional milk. To me, cutting out conventional dairy is a no brainer but I can certainly see why organic, raw milk is a nutritious and delicious choice for some people. I still wrestle a little bit with the concept of drinking the mammary secretions of another species (I just made it sound really gross, didn't I?!) but I could probably get over it pretty easily. For me, it's more the hormones that scare me off. I am still in the process of getting my own hormones back on track after years on the Pill and I would rather not complicate things by consuming a hormonal cocktail, even if it is from a happy, healthy, grass-fed cow. Again, it's a personal choice, and that is mine....for now. All that said, I am not totally crazy about my decision not to eat dairy. If there is cheese on a salad at a friend's place for dinner, or pavlova on the menu at a restaurant, you better believe I am consuming that dairy! It's more about what you do MOST of the time than what you do SOME of the time. We've all heard it before, but moderation is the key, baby!
So, have you made your decision yet? (or have I totally overwhelmed you?)
If you wish to consume raw milk, seek out small local farms who are producing dairy responsibly. Look for pasture-raised products from a farm that you know and trust and are confident with its sanitary practices. From an eco perspective, small farms are able to recycle their waste (manure) back into the earth to enrich the soil so it's a much more sustainable option!
If you suspect that you may be sensitive to dairy, try eliminating it from your diet for a month and see how your body responds. If your eczema clears up or your stomach cramping goes away, then you have your answer!
If you do decide to remove all dairy products from your diet, don't worry, there are lots of delicious whole food replacements.
- Coconut milk, almond milk, rice milk, oat milk, hemp milk (homemade if possible!)
- Coconut yogurt, almond yogurt
- Nut-based cheese
- Coconut sour cream (mix 1 cup of full-fat canned coconut milk with 2 Tbsp of white vinegar and let sit in fridge for 30 mins to thicken)
- Banana "ice cream" or coconut ice cream
- Try some of my dairy-free smoothies and desserts!
Still worried about getting enough calcium?
It is easy to see why many of us are duped by the calcium content on dairy product labels which is often quite impressive. The reality, however, is due to the acidity of dairy, you actually end up with a net loss of calcium after digestion. Instead, add in more alkaline-forming plant foods which provide calcium and won't cause it to be leached from the body.
Try some of these vegan sources of this vital mineral:
- Sesame seeds / Tahini
- Chia seeds
What do you think about consuming commercial milk? Would you try raw milk? What are your favorite substitutions for dairy in your kitchen? Share in the comments below!
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