By request, I have written a brief dissertation on the in’s and out’s of eating dairy. Recently my dear friend, soul sista and ayurvedic practitioner, Britt, asked me to harness my nutritional knowings and share some thoughts on the subject of consuming dairy. Most of use consume dairy in the form of moo-juice and moo-juice derivatives like cheese, yogurt, ice cream, coffee cream, and just plain ol’ milk. Here’s a little something that might help you decide whether or not dairy fits into your dietary ideals.
First, let’s talk about the current recommendations to get three servings of dairy/day. This is a result of two things: A VERY powerful influence by the dairy industry (the National Dairy Council has bookoo bucks!) and also because dairy provides some basic elements that are essential to human health. Eating dairy is a cheap way to get your calcium, Vitamin D, lean protein, potassium and magnesium. These are not nutrients that most Americans get enough of. Further, cultured dairy, like yogurt, offers up a pro-biotic benefit that can help keep your colon healthy.
For a while it was proposed that the calcium in dairy would help with weight loss. This was not proven true in recent studies, but another thought is that the satiating elements of the protein and fat might reduce intake, and thus help with weight loss. Recently calcium was linked with reduced risks of some cancers, such as colon cancer. But here’s the deal: Dairy is NOT the only way to get calcium, or these other minerals mentioned. Not even close. Some studies link dairy, in general, with increased risks of cancer and that may be due to the casein, it’s hard to say.
There are many great food sources of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and lean protein that don’t contain dairy. Vitamin D,….well, that is a tough one. Supplementation is a realistic option for those living in low light states (like the Pacific Northwest), and there is some Vitamin D in mushrooms grown under UV light and fortified foods. Otherwise, no natural food sources exist, and hence dairy is an easy go-to for Vitamin D. (as are dairy replacements, such as rice, almond and soy milk). Regarding calcium, you can get 20% of your daily calcium and about 15% of your daily iron needs from a serving of blackstrap molasses. Strawberries, kale, collard greens, broccoli, tofu and a slough of other veggies and fruits contain significant amounts of calcium, and some of them contain magnesium and potassium as well. The problem is that most folks don’t eat a lot of them, so again, dairy is any easy win when it comes to certain nutrients.
When it comes to the protein of dairy, we can learn a lot from the story of little miss muffit, who sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey. Curds represent the casein (making up about 80% of dairy protein). They curdle when exposed to acid, and solidfy (hence the curds). Casein contains most of the nutritive proteins in dairy, as they provide a complete protein (all the essential amino acids). The whey is the liquid portion that is more prominent in the foam of cappuccino, and is less nutritive than the casein but has important nutrient transporter proteins and enzymes. So, together the dairy proteins do some big jobs.
What becomes problematic is that, aside from lactose intolerance (which is about the milk sugar), many people have difficulty in digesting casein, and may not even know it. That makes dairy the wrong choice for some people. If you feel achy joints, constipation, mental fog or lethargy, or irritability, headaches or other symptoms after consuming dairy, you might have sensitivity to casein and it is best to avoid it. Beware, casein is a binding agent in many foods that don’t otherwise look like dairy containing foods, so read labels ( calcium casein is a common one or caseinate).
Cow dairy is not the only dairy we consume. Goat, sheep and yak dairy (okay, that one only applies if you are in the Himalyas), are also consumed by humans. You can look to your ancestry to see whether or not you come from cow milk consuming cultures, such as northern Europe, or goat/sheep milk clans, such as in the Mediterranean. You might consider eating more of your indigenous dairy sources, since it is likely your genes evolved to digest THAT diary (proteins) over other species. Sheep and goat milk have more protein and less fat by weight than cow protein. There isn’t a lot of research on their benefits or issues with them, so it’s hard to say if they are implicated in health issues. Some anti-dairy advocates also say that even unpasteurized, organic dairy, is not worth the potential increased risks of cancer and lack of evidence on dairy helping with weight loss.
So, then what about protein supplements, such as whey protein supplements? That is a HUGE topic and again, depending upon who you speak with, the opinion differs. Has much research been done on the digestibility and health benefits of these supplements, side by side? I haven’t seen much. I do know that buying protein supplements that are just a bunch of single amino acids compiled together may be a waste of your money. Why, you ask? Because many amino acids are digest as dimmers, meaning they want to be linked to one other amino acid. When you isolate each one and get only monomers, such as in supplements, you may be paying for a less optimal product. Why not use yogurt or some milk if you are going to make a protein smoothie with whey protein? Also, colostrum is now being used as a new superfood in some proteins. It is very energy dense, but again, the question remains whether or not this is a nutrient source humans need to consume. Aside from newborns, colostrum is not a food source for growing humans, so we are probably fine with out. No, we are definitely fine without it. Other supplements include casein and whey, thus may be more reflective of what occurs naturally in milk, but watch the other additives.
In short, the story on dairy is that ‘it’s complicated’. You have to ask yourself how you feel when you consume it? Are you over-using dairy? One thing is certain – eating more dairy and less grains/veggies/healthy fats is NOT the recipe for healthy living. Watch serving sizes and quality of dairy sources. Avoid rBST, the hormone used to make cows grow big and strong. It’s banned in most of Europe and it’s easy to find rBST-free sources in the USA if you look. Buy organic when you can because you’ll get less exposure to pesticides and also because it is possible that pasture fed dairy contains more essential fatty acids, though that is not certain.. I also recommend buying dairy in opaque containers, as light can break down some of the nutrients. Go organic, but remember that organic nutrients digest the EXACT same way is inorganic. If you can find raw milk from a trusted source, aim for that, however this is location and cost prohibitive for most people.
Want another perspective on Dairy? Consider this article