Dairy is one of those controversial foods. Discussions stir up question marks and different viewpoints and it is quite obvious that the decision to drink or not to drink milk is very personal. It seems to work for some and doesn’t work for others.
Many people believe milk consumption is essential for growing children, for energy, for building strong bones and for preventing osteoporosis in adults. A lot of the advertising campaigns for milk are built on this widespread belief. At the same time there is growing awareness in the world today about the potential health damaging consequences linked to dairy consumption.
I believe it is, as always, necessary to consider all angles before coming to a well-informed decision that works for you. In this article I will first look what conventional milk actually is. I will then examine some different viewpoints and common health problems that have been associated with dairy consumption so that you have some more detailed information available that will hopefully guide you in deciding for yourself whether dairy should be in your diet or not.
Research has shown that for as long as tens of thousands of years humans have been drinking milk. It has for a very long time been one of the most important sources of nourishment for the world’s population. It is, however, relatively recent (about a hundred years ago) that the kind of milk we consumed changed significantly through the introduction of batchprocessing pasteurisation machines. Before that people survived and thrived on the consumption of fresh, raw milk. Pasteurisation became a necessity when diseased cows, housed in cities, produced milk which was tainted with bacteria and when dairymen were often infected with diphtheria which spread through the raw, warm milk to other people causing severe epidemics. However, in the case of healthy cows that were well looked after, allowed to roam and graze on grass, there were never such health risks.
In her book “Deep Nutrition” Dr Cate Shanahan explains these developments in a lot of detail. She points out that when savvy businessmen and milk producers recognised the potential growth in output volumes with the help of pasteurisation machines, they initiated aggressive campaigns to promote pasteurised milk which were centred on creating fear in the mind of consumers about drinking tainted raw milk. And it worked. In most parts of the world today the only milk people are able to buy in stores is heavily processed, pasteurised, homogenised milk.
Most of this milk is from factory farmed cows that are fed hormones and treated with antibiotics all of which land up in the very milk you consume. No wonder there are so many health related problems linked to dairy consumption. According to
Dr Shanahan and many other nutrition experts, the processing of milk significantly reduces the nutritional value and alters its micro-architecture, which makes it highly irritating to the digestive tract and leads to many potential health issues including cancer.
Proponents of dairy consumption that understand the problems associated with “modern processed milk” agree that milk in its natural and raw state is highly nutritious and contains highly bio available healthy fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
Even the ancient healing tradition of Ayurveda confirms this belief. Cow’s milk is considered to be a “sattvic” food that is good especially for growing children provided it is used raw and heated to boiling point, which renders it more digestible, with mucusdecreasing spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves (Ayurvedic Healing – David Frawley).
The problem is, as I pointed out earlier, that fresh, raw milk is often hard to come by. And if it is, it is important to make sure the milk has been obtained from healthy, grass-grazing cows under the most hygienic conditions. Secondly, there is the question of whether even fresh, raw milk should be consumed freely by all, especially adults. In the words of Mark Sisson of “Mark’s Daily Apple”*: “Milk is baby fuel. It’s literally meant to spur growth and enable a growing body. Our bodies definitely recognise dairy as food, even foreign bovine dairy. But is it good nutrition?”
Good nutrition or not, the fact is that dairy is everywhere. We consume it in the form of plain milk, in our coffee and tea, as yoghurt, ice cream, butter, cream, buttermilk, cheese, in desserts, sweets, sauces and the list goes on.
To figure out whether this is such a good thing, let’s have a look at some of the problems that have been linked to dairy consumption:
Lactose intolerance Lactose is the type of sugar found in milk. We digest this sugar with the help of the enzyme lactase which nearly everyone has in their digestive tract but many lose as they get older. It is estimated that about 75% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, this being more prevalent in people of Asian, African or Mediterranean descent. Lactose intolerance causes a number of different symptoms including cramping, acne, bloating, diarrhoea, gas, eczema, headaches and nausea. Most people that are lactose intolerant can tolerate small amounts of dairy, which makes it difficult to figure out if you have this problem. The best way to determine if you do is an elimination test, which means you exclude all dairy from your diet for a period of at least 2 weeks. After this period of elimination, when you re-introduce it you will have a heightened reaction if you have a problem digesting lactose.
Fermentation breaks down lactose, which makes products such as yoghurt and cheese sometimes easier to digest. Please keep in mind that most of the store bought yoghurts has only been fermented for short periods and therefore has higher amounts of lactose still present. Traditional Greek yoghurts seem to be an exception to this. Making yoghurt at home and allowing it to ferment for longer is the best way to reduce lactose to acceptable levels. It is also important to note that yoghurt contains many gut-friendly bacteria that help maintain a healthy digestive system.
Casein is a type of protein found in milk. It is not the only one but makes up about 80% of the total milk protein. Certain protein fragments (or peptides) within casein’s molecular structure have specific physiological functions.They are, for example, able to cross the intestinal barrier in young children but also in adults who have a compromised digestive system (i.e. intestinal permeability). Once in the bloodstream they bind with opioid receptors, inducing morphine-like effects. These peptides, more specifically BCM 7 (Beta Caso-morphin 7) have also been linked to higher risks of type 1 diabetes and heart disease.
Interestingly, not all cows producemilk that contains BCM 7. According to Keith Woodford, author of “Devil in the Milk”, there are two types of casein: A1 and A2. Only the A1 beta-casein releases the “problematic” peptide BCM7. Whether the milk you drink is of type A1 or A2 is a result of the genetic makeup of the cows that it comes from. Awareness of the difference in types of milk is slowly growing. In certain countries such as Australia and New Zealand there has been a conscious shift towards producing more of the health beneficial A2 type milk. Goat, sheep, and yak’s milk are A2 milk by the way.
In their book: “It Starts with Food” Melissa and Dallas Hartwig speculate that the very presence of this BCM7 casomorphin is perhaps one of the main reasons some people find it hard to give up eating cheese. Cheese is mostly made of concentrated casein blended with enzymes that partly digest the casein molecules, liberating some of the morphine-like compounds.
With regards to digestive issues, casein shares some structural properties with the proteins found in gluten. Many people who are sensitive to gluten are therefore less likely to tolerate dairy.
Effects on insulin
In addition to lactose dairy products contain whey, which is another type of protein. Whey is made up of several different types of smaller proteins and hormones including immunoglobins, insulin, insulin like growth factor, oestrogen and other growth factors.
The combination of lactose and whey is therefore the reason that milk causes the release of very large amounts of insulin when consumed. When we are no longer in an aggressive growth stage (meaning when we are no longer infants) the resulting insulin spike can be detrimental to health, especially for people that need to improve their insulin sensitivity such as pre-diabetics and diabetics.
We are all extremely vulnerable to hormonal imbalances, especially so now, with the lifestyles we lead, the pollution around us, the products we use on our skin and in our homes, and the foods we eat. Many people (including myself for a long time), are not aware of the fact that hormonal imbalance is the real underlying cause of their health problems. They blame their fatigue, irritability, mood swings, depression, menstrual problems, low libido on ageing and their bodies refusing to cooperate.
Or they go around in endless circles trying to address their issues without getting down to the real cause. There are many things we can do to naturally restore the delicate balance of our body’s hormones. For one, our diet can make a big difference. In this context conventional milk which comes from factory-farmed cows contains, amongst other things, synthetic growth hormones which can interfere with your body’s natural hormone balance.
Especially excess levels of oestrogen have been associated with the consumption of conventional milk products. Excess oestrogen has in turn been linked to menstrual irregularities, fibroids and endometriosis among other things.
Milk and cheese have also been shown to increase matrix metalloproteinase (MMK), which creates inflammation in the body, which in turn leads to higher levels of androgens (hormones responsible for growth and reproduction) and acne. Lastly, here is what Annemarie Colbin, PhD writes in her book “Food and Healing” about milk in any form:
“Milk is a product of the reproductive glands of a cow and contains an appreciable amount of hormones, including gonadotrophin’s, thyroidreleasing hormones, ovarian steroids, and an epidermal growth factor.” Whether the milk your drink is conventional, organic, Type A2 and/or fresh and raw, this is something to keep in mind especially if you are dealing with hormonal problems.
Dairy and calcium
One of the first questions that pops up when people start thinkingabout cutting out milk and other dairy products from their diet is “where do I get my calcium from?” Due to very effective advertising campaigns and other propaganda we have been led to believe that milk is the best if not only source of calcium.
Let me ask you this: how do elephants, cows and giraffes build and maintain their large bone structure if they never drink milk after weaning from their mother’s milk? They definitely don’t drink the mother’s milk of another animal. They obtain their calcium and other bone building nutrients by eating grass, leaves and other vegetable matter.
There are many foods that are rich in calcium which is often more bio-available to our bodies. These foods include beans, nuts, green leafy vegetables, sea vegetables, sesame seeds, small fish with edible bones and bone stock. It is therefore absolutely not essential to consume dairy products in order to get sufficient calcium into your body.
In fact, many of us who drink lowfat milk for that reason might actually be achieving the opposite effect: the fat in milk is not only healthy but also assists in the assimilation of calcium. Removing the fat from the milk could be making the digestion of milk protein more difficult as well. As always, any food in its whole, unrefined state is a carefully balanced set of nutrients and elements in its ideal proportion.
The topic of bone health and osteoporosis requires a much deeper understanding of calcium requirements and absorption as well as other bone building nutrients. I will cover this in more details in a future article but for now we can safely conclude that dairy is not essential or perhaps even recommended for building or maintaining bone health or for calcium requirements in general.
It’s almost like opening a can of worms when you delve into dairy details. At least so it seems. I personally do not tolerate milk very well but I do occasionally like to indulge in a bit of cheese, preferably goats or sheeps without that causing much of a problem. I know many people in the Paleo community (and others too) who swear by drinking raw, fresh milk and in rural areas across the world many families drink milk fresh from a cow, which is kept for that purpose.
In some countries, like India, the consumption of homemade yoghurt is a daily habit. Where would Holland and France be without its cheese? The decision to eat dairy or not is therefore not as blackand-white as we would like it to be.
My main philosophy regarding diet and nutrition is that it is all about awareness. To understand what you put into your mouth, why you put it there, the effect it has on your overall state of health, and last but not least, the joy of eating. The information in this article is meant to increase your level of awareness so that you can make the best possible decision that suits you.
Monique Jhingon is a Functional Nutrition & Lifestyle Practitioner who offers select private coaching to expats whose health and digestion has been compromised as a result of transitioning into new environments, cultures, climates and foods. You can read more on her website and sign up for a free nutrition breakthrough session here: www.moniquejhingon.com
- “Deep Nutrition. Why your genes need traditional foods.” – Dr Cate Shanahan and Luke Shanahan
- “Digestive Wellness” – Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D., DDN, CHN
- “Ayurvedic Healing” – David Frawley
- “Healing with Whole Foods” – Paul Pitchford
- “Food and Healing” – Annemarie Colbin
- “The Whole-food Guide to Strong Bones” – Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.
- “It Starts with Food” – Dallas & Melissa Hartwig