The Deal With Dairy

Before I get to today’s post, I need to say something that’s been on my mind for a while, and even more so after a couple of the comments on my last post got a little heated.

When it comes to healthy diets and what we should/should not eat, a lot of people seem to think their way is the only way. I do not agree. No matter what you read in a book, or anywhere else for that matter, there isn’t one single “dietary prescription” that’s going to work for everyone. We’re all different: from our unique cultural backgrounds to our taste preferences to our biochemical makeup. We each need to find our own satisfying way to eat that will best support our individual health. I believe that a whole foods diet supports the health of everyone, but there’s a fair amount of “finessing” that can be done from there…like whether to eat animal foods or not, whether to eat grains or not, discovery/management of individual food allergies/intolerances/sensitivities, etc.

My opinions on nutrition- and therefore the foods that I choose to eat- have been influenced by my upbringing, my naturopathic medical education, my personal dietary experiences/experiments, and all of the research I’ve done (and continue to do every single day) since I set off on this holistic lifestyle path 20 years ago. I started this blog so I’d have a place to share my perspective, which I try to keep both dogma and fad-free. I am grateful that I have a place to express myself, and that there are people who are willing to listen.

That said, I am fine with it if you don’t agree with me…and it’s alright if you want to let me know that in the comments. I can’t possibly please everyone. But I want you to know that I stand by everything I write and I write it with only the best of intentions: to help you live a healthier life. I am well aware that a lot of us are very emotionally invested in our eating patterns and get nervous when our ways are called into question; if that’s true for you, I ask that you keep an open mind and hear me out even if what I am saying makes you uncomfortable. Change can be hard…there’s no doubt about that…but change is what this series is about!

Now let’s get to this week’s One Simple Change topic, ok? Let’s discuss dairy.

Last week I told you to consider reducing and possibly eliminating the wheat, gluten, and grains in your diet, and I gave you many reasons why. I know that was a little hard for some of you to hear, and you’re probably wondering if I’m going to say similarly bad things about dairy.

Well, just like with grains, the whole dairy “thing” is a little confusing. We are certainly bombarded with mixed messages, aren’t we?! We’ve got our favorite celebrities (with their adorable white mustaches) asking us over and over if we’ve “got milk?”, and we’re told that dairy products must be consumed if we’re to have strong bones. But we’ve been told that the saturated fat in dairy is bad, so lots of us dutifully purchase and eat dairy products that are fat-free.

At the same time, we’ve also got a number of health “gurus” telling us that if we want to be healthy, we shouldn’t be consuming dairy products at all. They say our our bodies are not set up to drink the milk of cows. They point out that a great many people lack the the enzyme lactase, and are therefore lactose intolerant, and that milk proteins are highly allergenic. They also argue that commercial milk can’t possibly be good for you since it contains hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, and pesticides (because of the “unnatural” ways dairy cows are raised/medicated/fed), and they offer up numerous alternatives to dairy for getting calcium into the body.

Then there’s yet another “camp” of folks who believe that dairy is indeed extremely nutritious, but that we shouldn’t be drinking modern industrial milk. Instead, we should seek out milk and milk products from cows that are raised humanely without the administration of antibiotics and hormones, and who are also grazed on pasture. This means buying milk that’s organic and grass-fed, or possibly even going one step further and sourcing grass-fed, organic milk that’s raw (ie unhomogenized/unpasteurized).

After reading a number of thorough (and quite excellent) historical accounts of milk, I must say that I agree with the third group. I think milk can be an extremely healthy food, but that the type of milk and dairy products we choose to consume is of the utmost importance. I first tried raw milk about 10 years ago but didn’t have a way to get it on a regular basis. Since learning of a local source 3 years ago, I’ve been drinking it almost exclusively.

I understand that many people think drinking milk that hasn’t been pasteurized is a bad- dangerous, even- idea, but keep in mind that when milk is heated to kill off potentially harmful bacteria, beneficial bacteria are also destroyed. Pasteurization kills enzymes, as well, including those that help with the digestion of dairy (I’ve seen many reports of people with a lactose intolerance being able to drink raw milk without a problem). Raw milk is also said to boost the immune system and appears to be tolerated by many who have sensitivities or allergies to commercial milk (though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this is the case). Proponents of raw milk claim it’s way more nutritious than it’s pasteurized/homogenized counterpart, but I must admit that I found it very hard to get solid information about the nutrient content of raw vs. regular milk while I was researching this post. I’ll continue to look into this issue and hopefully have a definitive answer in my book. It does seem that the two contain the same amount of protein and calcium, though.

I’m not going to discuss all the additional potential benefits of drinking raw milk here because you can find those anecdotes elsewhere, but I will say that I drink my milk raw because I personally believe it’s a safe food, because it tastes terrific, and because I want to support my farmer friends who take great care of their cows (regular dairy cows are often kept in truly deplorable conditions) and do what it takes to make clean raw milk available to me. This is not to say that YOU should drink raw milk. Please do your own research to determine if it’s the right choice for you.

If you can’t find or don’t want to drink raw milk, I suggest purchasing organic, grass-fed milk that’s either been pasteurized and homogenized, or that’s just pasteurized. Some people avoid homogenized milk because it’s potentially more allergenic, and because it’s been implicated as a possible contributor to heart disease: I am investigating these claims. Buying organic milk will ensure that it’s free of antibiotics and hormones, though, and that the dairy cows eat a diet primarily of grass (instead of the corn, soy, and many other undesirable things that commercial dairy cows are fed). The milkfat of cows who graze on grass is high in a number of nutrients including beneficial omega-3 fatty acids as well as conjugated linolenic acid (aka CLA, which has been shown to fight cancer, promote muscle growth, and reduce abdominal body fat); organic, pastured butter is a particularly good source of these nutrients. The milkfat of cows that eat corn, soy, etc. does not have a healthy fatty acid profile.

I believe that if you eat dairy, you should always have full-fat! I know this flies in the face of what you may have heard, but the fat that’s naturally present in high quality milk is not unhealthy. This is a no-brainer if you drink raw milk because the cream floats to the top of the milk in all its glory, then you just need to give it a good shake to disperse the fat throughout, but if you are buying regular milk, a lot of people choose low fat or skim thinking they’re doing themselves a favor. Now if you are not buying organic but you insist on on drinking skim, maybe you are better off because the fat in regular milk is not good for you (check the paragraph above for the reasons why). But if you are buying organic, then opt for whole milk because the fat in dairy is where many of the nutrients (including the omega-3s and CLA) are. I drank skim milk at one point in my life but I cannot possibly imagine doing so now because I think it tastes like crap and it’s incredibly unsatisfying. Contrary to what we heard in the mainstream media for a long time, low-fat versions of traditional foods do not support health: a diet full of them is not nourishing and typically upsets blood sugar and insulin levels. This ultimately makes it hard, if not impossible, to maintain a healthy weight.

It’s important to note that historically, milk was not consumed fresh in many parts of the world: it was (and continues to be) transformed into yogurt and other cultured dairy foods, as well as cheeses, and the cream on top was/is turned into butter/buttermilk, etc. There’s much wisdom in this…these derivatives of milk have always been prized for their abilities to nourish the body and they are generally well-tolerated even by those who don’t digest milk on its own very well. And to reiterate the point about choosing whole fat dairy foods: think about how many hundreds (thousands?) of years your ancestors around the world have been enjoying full-fat dairy products. Low-fat dairy has only been available for a short time evolutionarily speaking…it’s not a natural food and our bodies don’t really know how to process it.

While dairy has not always been consumed in every culture and there’s a chance you’re not meant to eat it, there’s absolutely no reason to deprive yourself of dairy if you enjoy it and it makes you feel good: just be sure to choose full fat dairy foods preferably from organic, pastured cows.

Now before I finish up, I want to talk just a bit about what I said above: “eat it if it makes you feel good”. This is what I was trying to get at last week when I asked you to consider giving up wheat, gluten, and/or grains. A full-fledged discussed of food allergies/intolerances/sensitivities is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that any food can be potentially problematic for someone. Wheat happens to be a food that many people react to…dairy reactions are also very common. And many people who have problems with gluten ALSO have problems with dairy because their digestive system is already compromised. So it’s important to keep in mind that even if you go out of your way to buy the healthiest versions of these (or any) foods, they still might not work for you.

How do you know if you’ve got a potential issue with a food? Symptoms like fatigue that does not resolve despite good quality sleep, respiratory issues, skin disorders, recurrent infections, joint pains, headaches, and mood swings are all clues that you might be eating a food (or foods) that does not work for your body. There are different tests available for food sensitivities (an alternative medical provider would be the best person to ask about these) but you can also try this: take a food that you suspect may be a problem completely out of your diet for at least 4 days and see what happens. While I was writing this post, I decided to do this with dairy, because even though I drink raw milk and eat high quality organic, pastured and full-fat dairy, I’ve been experiencing a lot of nasal congestion/post nasal drip and I’ve had two sinus infections this year so far. So I am doing a trial dairy-free diet in order to see if I feel better without it…want to do it with me? Or, if you don’t think dairy is a problem for you but you think something else might be, I encourage you to experiment with taking that food out of your diet for 4-7 days and seeing how you do. It’s entirely possible that dairy is not my issue (or yours) but it’s not very hard to eliminate it for a few days. The way I see it, I’ve got nothing to lose…I’ll be super bummed out if it turns out that I am sensitive to dairy since I love it and believe it to be so health-promoting, but I’d do pretty much anything to get rid of my chronic congestion right now.

I believe that I am my own best health detective/advocate, and that you are yours. So why not become familiar with what it means to eat healthy dairy, but consider taking it out of your diet for a time if you think it might be problematic for you? If you do turn out to be sensitive to dairy or any other food, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you can never eat it again. Your body might just need a break from it. If the problem isn’t too severe, you might get over your food sensitivities after a relatively short period of elimination (try 6-12 months). On the other hand, you might need to avoid the problematic food(s) for longer along with taking steps to heal your digestion and strengthen your immune system. Mind you I am not talking about IgE mediated food allergies right now- the kind that result in anaphylactic reactions- nor am I talking about celiac disease. Those require lifelong avoidance of the offending foods. Also, if there’s a possibility that you have multiple food sensitivities, you might be better off getting tested (again, a holistic medical provider will be the best person to help with this) than playing around with eliminating foods on your own.

Ok that all for this week, folks! What do you think of this week’s One Simple Change? A lot to think about, right? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

For more information related to this post, please check out the following (and know that if you make a purchase through one of the amazon.com links I make a little money through their affiliate program):

RealMilk.com
Information on CLA from EatWild.com
Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages
The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated: The History, Politics and Science of Nature’s Perfect Food: Raw Milk from Pasture-Fed Cows
Real Food: What to Eat and Why
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Hidden Food Allergies: The Essential Guide to Uncovering Hidden Food Allergies-and Achieving Permanent Relief