There’s a lot of buzz in the current health landscape about dairy; if you’ve been following any of it, thoughts in your head are likely swarming. Unfortunately, I cannot provide 100% clear cut answers because…there aren’t any. Dairy tolerance differs from person to person. However, I will clarify the central arguments of the dairy debate and help you identify whether or not you’re dairy intolerant.
First of all, what constitutes “dairy”?
You may already know the answer to this, but until recently I did not. Dairy = “food made primarily of or from milk.” Wait, but eggs are in the dairy section of the grocery store…so aren’t eggs dairy? This is where I was confused. No, eggs are not dairy. Why, then, are eggs always grouped with dairy products? I have no idea! Here is a list of the most common dairy products:
- Heavy cream
- Sour cream
- Cottage cheese
- Ice cream
- Frozen yogurt
If you’re like me, you think all/most of the above are delicious! What’s to debate, right? Allow me to break the dairy debate down into layman’s terms…
Key Buzz Words in the Dairy Debate Decoded
When I first heard the word “casein,” I thought people were saying “casing.” I was wrong! Needless to say, I had no clue what a casein was. If you’re in that same boat, here is a summary:
- Caseins and whey are two proteins found in milk.
- There are two types of caseins found in milk (and therefore dairy products): A1 beta-casein and A2 beta-casein.
- A1 beta-casein only appeared a few thousand years ago.
- People often react poorly to A1 beta-casein, which is found in cow’s milk.
- Goat’s and sheep’s milk lack the A1 beta-casein, which is why people are often more tolerant of these.
- The A1 and A2 proteins are extremely similar, so some people are intolerant to both and are thus intolerant to all dairy products.
- Casein is a protein with a very similar molecular structure to gluten; 50% of the people who are gluten intolerant are also casein intolerant.
“Lactose intolerant” is a common phrase. What, exactly, does this mean, and which types of dairy contain lactose? Here’s a brief overview:
- Lactose is a sugar present in milk.
- Our bodies use an enzyme called lactase to break down lactose so that we can absorb it into our bodies. Lactose intolerant people don’t have enough lactase, which is produced in the small intestine.
- Cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk all contain similar amounts of lactose.
- Butter, hard cheese, probiotic yogurt, kefir, and (pure) heavy cream are all low in lactose, so some people with lactose intolerance may be able to consume small amounts of these foods. (Lactose intolerant people can usually eat ghee–clarified butter–as well because ghee contains only trace amounts of casein and lactose. To make ghee, )
- Since milk contains lactose, a form of sugar, it can cause the dreaded insulin spike.
- Full-fat milks and dairy products (like heavy cream and butter) contain less lactose, so they’re less likely to cause a spike in insulin.
Another “hot” topic in health right now is inflammation; dairy is often pinpointed as being a highly inflammatory food. Why, you ask? Because…
- Both the sugar (lactose) and proteins (casein and whey) in milk cause inflammation.
- People who are lactose intolerant suffer from extreme internal inflammation after eating dairy.
- A person may produce enough lactase but still react poorly to one–or both!–of the proteins found in milk: casein or whey. This person may experience inflammation from all types of milk.
- A person may react poorly to solely the A1 beta-casein. This person may experience inflammation exclusively from cow’s milk and dairy products produced using cow’s milk.
5) Hormones and Antibiotics
- American dairy farmers inject cows with a genetically engineered growth hormone called rBGH to increase milk production.
- This forced increase in milk production can cause an udder infection in cows called mastitis, which farmers treat using antibiotics. These antibiotics can (obviously) make their way into dairy products.
- The quality of the dairy we consume matters; organic and raw milk both come from animals that were not treated with rBGH.
6) Fat Composition
I think it’s time for a visual aid! Consider the chart below:
As you can see, cow’s milk is lower in fat but contains larger and more difficult to digest fat globules. Sheep’s and goat’s milk are higher in fat (in the form of medium-chain triglycerides), but they contain smaller and more easily digested fat globules.
Contrary to the claims made by milk and dairy advertisers, foods besides milk contain high levels of absorbable calcium. Here are a few:
- Bone broth
- Leafy greens
- Fish with bones (canned)
- Almond butter
- Chia seeds
- Sesame seeds
8) Raw vs. Pastuerized
- Raw milk is unpasteurized and…raw!
- Pasteurized milk is processed.
- Some people who cannot tolerate pasteurized milk can tolerate raw milk.
- Some people swear by raw milk; others avoid it because it is more likely to contain harmful bacteria.
So…should I eat dairy or not?
As I mentioned at the start, the answer to this question depends on your tolerance. If you tolerate milk and dairy well, then go for it! Still, be sure to avoid the low-fat varieties because they contain more lactose (sugar) and unhealthy additives.
However, you may think you tolerate dairy when really you don’t. Since cheese and ice cream and yogurt are so delicious, it’s easy to lie to ourselves and pretend as if everything is A-OK when, in reality, it’s not. The best way to determine any food sensitivity is to remove the food in question from your diet for 30ish days and then reintroduce it. After reintroduction, if you notice any symptoms–nausea, swollen joints, muscle aches, etc.–you should assume you have a dairy sensitivity (or even an intolerance).
My Personal Story
I have never completely eliminated all dairy from my diet, but I did decide to start eating solely sheep’s and goat’s milk products to see how I felt. The result: I feel so much better! Knowing this information caused me to change my daily eating habits. My dairy consumption now looks like this:
- I OFTEN EAT:
- Cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk
- I RARELY EAT:
- Cheese made from cow’s milk
- Heavy cream
- Ice cream
- Frozen yogurt
Thus, I’m not super strict about my dairy consumption, but I do mostly avoid dairy made from cow’s milk. I’ve never completely eliminated all forms of dairy from my diet, but I’d be interested to see how I’d feel if I did. I plan to try this at some point in the future; when I do, I’ll report back!
If you discover you have a sensitivity (or intolerance) to all forms of dairy, fear not! These are some delicious dairy alternatives:
- Almond milk
- Coconut milk
- Cashew milk
- Hemp milk
- Cheeses, yogurts, ice creams, etc., made from all of the above!
Eating cheese and yogurt made from almond milk may sound weird to you, but companies like Kite Hill have drummed up some delicious products!
One final note: If you decide to buy one of the milks listed above, be sure it’s free from unnecessary additives . . . like carrageenan and soy lecithin! In my experience, the non-refrigerated, boxed versions of the above milks contain more preservatives than their refrigerated counterparts. Still, be sure to read the ingredient label of any milk to be sure it doesn’t contain impure additives.
What are your thoughts on dairy? I love to read your comments. Also, if you would like me to write a post on a certain topic, feel free to make a suggestion!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!
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