Q: What's the deal with dairy? I've heard so many different things!
A: Milk, despite being a dietary staple for a very long time, does have its controversial side: On the one hand, you hear that milk and dairy are good sources of calcium, so you should consume them; on the other, you’re told that drinking milk is unnatural and that humans are the only mammals to drink milk from other mammals, plus it has hormones.
To the unnatural point, we are also the only species to build and drive cars, so the line of thinking that compares our behaviors to other mammals isn’t that compelling. As for hormones, there isn't adequate, credible research to support that there are hormones in milk causing problems for people. Now let’s take a closer look at what we do know about how healthy milk and dairy are.
High in calcium and vitamin D: Milk is a convenient and concentrated source of both these nutrients, which are essential dietary components for bone health.
Whey and casein: These are the two proteins found in dairy products. Whey is by far the most popular protein used in protein powders, and casein has been gaining popularity over the years as well. Both offer unique benefits regarding amino acid profiles and digestion rates. Whey contains an abundance of branched chain amino acids, which are key for supporting muscle growth while also helping fight soreness from your workouts.
Convenience: Whether you choose cheese, cottage cheese, or Greek yogurt, dairy is an easy way to get in a high-protein snack during the day when you’re on the go—something many people struggle with.
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Lactose: This dairy sugar is actually two sugars bonded together. Lactase, an enzyme in our bodies, breaks that bond so the individual sugars can be digested. But for the 12 percent of the U.S. population with lactose intolerance whose bodies don’t effectively break down lactose, consuming dairy can disrupt the balance of the GI tract and provide fuel for bacteria in the gut, leading to bloating and gas.
Lactose intolerance is tricky, as it is a sliding scale. Because of varying levels of lactase production by different people, some can enjoy ice cream but can’t go near milk. Your personal lactose tolerance is very individualize and should be something that you determine by removing dairy and then adding back different types to your diet to see how your body reacts. You may discover you have no issue at all with lactose, or you may find that you don’t actually “hold stress in your stomach” but instead can’t handle the lactose in a glass of milk.
Whey and casein: Yes, whey and casein are both pros and cons for eating dairy. The downside of these proteins is that they are the most common food allergy in infants and young children. The general consensus is that you outgrow these allergies, but naturopathic doctor Brooke Kalanick, co-author of Ultimate You, disagrees.
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“I’m not sure anyone’s ever explained the ‘outgrowing’ aspect to me in terms of good science; it seems like one of those things that just gets passed down and taken as fact. In my practice I see adults that have low-grade digestive issues such as bloating or irregular bowel movements, but congestion is also very common. Most people don’t even complain about or they don’t connect it to the food. Then they come off of dairy and are amazed. Acne is another huge issue for adults with dairy issues,” she says.
Calories: Milk is often touted in dietary recommendations as somewhat of an elixir of life and something you should have at all your meals. The nutrients in moo juice are great, but it still contains calories, about 120 in one cup of 2-pecent milk. If you drink this three times a day—with breakfast, lunch, and dinner—that’s an extra 360 calories, which could be 20 percent of your caloric intake for the day. This is a fair amount of calories to be drinking, and that’s assuming you just pour 8 ounces. Perhaps this is why the Harvard School of Public Health’s “Healthy Plate” (their alternative to MyPlate) emphasizes drinking water, tea, or coffee (with little or no sweetener) and limiting milk to one or two glasses per day.
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THE BOTTOM LINE
Drinking dairy is an individual choice. As Kalanick points out, you may be experiencing some low-grade symptoms of a dairy allergy or intolerance that you don’t notice or connect with food. But you won’t make the connection until you are symptom free, so cut out dairy for two to three weeks and see how it impacts your body. Whatever you do, don’t cut out dairy for no reason—it is too jam-packed with nutrients to do that.