Stop the Dairy Insanity

Do you remember the "Milk. It does a body good." commercials of the 1980's? Or the more recent "Got milk?" ads? Both of these ad campaigns are absolutely brilliant...and remarkably effective. They really captured the hearts and minds of Americans.

Here's the problem: Milk doesn't do every body good.

In fact, 65% of people worldwide have a reduced ability to digest lactose (the sugar molecule in milk). A whopping 65%!!!! This means that the MAJORITY of adults are not able to properly digest lactose as adults. Why? Because we lose the ability to digest lactose after infancy. This is called lactose intolerance.

As babies, we all produce lactase (the enzyme necessary to digest lactose) to help us break down and digest breast milk; however, many humans lose 90-95% of birth lactase levels by early childhood. Our bodies were not designed to drink copious amounts of milk beyond infancy. Breast milk was meant to be a highly nutrient dense food that we consume in early life to grow, grow, grow. There is no other period of life during which our growth demands are as extensive as in infancy. After that initial period of intense growth and development (which can last the first few years of life), we were meant to wean off breast milk and transition to other food sources.

If you keep consuming dairy post-infancy and happen to be among the more than 60% of adults with lactose intolerance, you may be experiencing any one of the following symptoms: gas, bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea or constipation. All of these gastrointestinal symptoms result because your body can’t properly break down the lactose in milk. Tummy troubles ensue. [One thing to note: more people can tolerate fermented dairy (e.g., yogurt, kefir, aged cheese) than unfermented dairy since these products tend to have a lower lactose content from going through the fermentation process.]

Another problem with dairy beyond lactose intolerance is that many people have an immune response to it (or a so-called food sensitivity). Dairy is one of the top 5 food sensitivities (among wheat, corn, soy and eggs). I’m not talking about an allergic (IgE) response - that’s different. I’m referring to the fact that each time you eat dairy, your body mounts an immune response to the proteins in dairy (casein and whey); your body perceives it as a foreign invader (much like bacteria and viruses) and attacks it, causing inflammation and a cascade of symptoms. These symptoms can be widespread and non-specific: congestion, excess mucus, hay fever, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, respiratory problems or skin issues. And the list goes on.

As you can see, part of the reason that people have so much trouble digesting and assimilating milk is because our bodies weren’t designed to consume large quantities of milk post-infancy. And, another part of the reason that people have so much trouble digesting dairy is because of how conventional dairy is raised and treated - with hormones and antibiotics, with high levels of processing (e.g., pasteurization), often in unnatural living conditions and often not eating their natural diet. It’s a panoply of insults and our bodies just can’t make sense of it.

And, to add insult to injury, we all think that we are doing what's right and getting calcium from milk to support our bone health (at least that’s what all of these commercials have led us to believe)...but bone diseases (like osteoporosis) are highest in countries that consume the most dairy and animal protein. What’s that about? Have we been sold a bill of goods?

Not exactly. There are just a lot of factors to consider here and the dairy story isn’t so straightforward.

Yes, dairy does have calcium in it. But, calcium is only one of several nutrients needed for bone health; you also need vitamin D, vitamin K and magnesium. Vitamin A is also key (in appropriate amounts). Calcium alone is simply not enough.

Moreover, if you are hoping to increase your calcium levels, there are a lot of other non-dairy options out there, such as sesame seeds, sardines and leafy greens. Beans and almonds are also good choices.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want you to realize that dairy is not a panacea. It’s not the answer to all of our nutritional hopes and dreams. It can be a healthful food...if it’s raised naturally...if it’s consumed by people who can physiologically tolerate it...and if it’s consumed in moderate amounts as part of a whole and balanced diet. And if it doesn't work for you, that's okay too. Know thyself...and “to thine own self be true”.