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The Dairy Debate

Whether or not dairy products are healthy is one of the things that people most ask me about as a nutrition professional.

There’s the argument from the dairy industry and conventional medicine that, if you don’t eat dairy, you’re putting your bone health at risk.

Nutritionists and other alternative health professionals have long argued that consuming dairy products is likely to cause low-grade inflammation in the body, may increase the risk of cancer, drain your energy and cause breakouts.

Vegans also argue that eating dairy isn't natural for humans, and that dairy farming involves cruelty to animals many of us are unaware of, plus it significantly contributes to global warming.

Read on to learn about the pros and cons of dairy, and the potential benefits of giving up milk-based products. Potential Benefits of Dairy....

Dairy products contain a range of beneficial nutrients. Of course, there’s calcium, but it’s also a good source of protein, vitamins D and B12 and phosphorus.

Let’s talk about the calcium in dairy, because this is the thing you are told you will miss most if you stop consuming milk-based products.

When you reach the age of 30, the process of bone breakdown in your body a bit speedier than the process of new bone being made, so you need to make sure you’re getting good levels of this important mineral to fortify your frame. Although you can get calcium from other foods, the reason why dairy is touted as being the best source, is that the calcium from milk-based foods are more readily absorbed by the body.

Cow’s milk also contains the omega 6 fatty acid conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is considered to have health benefits. It is also contained in grass-fed beef. Studies suggest CLA can help with weight loss, and that people who have lot of foods containing CLA have a lower risk of diabetes and cancer.

Potential disadvantages of consuming dairy....

Dairy contains growth hormones, which may be linked to increased risk of disease and some cancers.

And other hormones, too, like oestrogen. Small amounts, true, but still oestrogen. Some cancers and medical conditions like endometriosis, PMS, fibroids and even menopause are linked to a dominance of oestrogen compared to progesterone.

Milk also has more naturally occurring sugar than you’d think. A cup of milk has about three teaspoons. The type of sugar in milk is called lactose. You might be tempted to say, ‘I’ll have lactose-free milk then.' Lactose-free milk has had the milk sugars broken into galactose and glucose. Same amount of sugars, different currency. However, the milk sugar is often the ingredient people do not tolerate, so a lactose-free milk can provide the benefits of regular milk but without digestive upset.

Non-organic dairy products contain antibiotic residues, so if you are eating dairy, make sure it’s organic.

Dairy is also commonly linked to acne. The research stacks up that that’s the case, but scientists aren’t 100% sure of the reason dairy triggers acne, though it’s likely to be something to do with the hormones present in milk. Another theory is that dairy products disrupt insulin levels and makes skin more prone to acne.

Is dairy bad for you?

Obviously, those with a true allergy (IgE) should avoid dairy. A true allergy tends to present with a more severe reaction than lactose intolerance. The two main proteins in milk that can cause allergic reactions are casein (the solid part or curd) and whey (found in the liquid part of milk). Symptoms of a milk allergy can occur immediately or within hours after exposure and may include: hives, wheezing, and vomiting. Symptoms that may take longer to appear include diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, a skin rash, wheezing or colic in babies. If you suspect a milk allergy is is important to speak to your GP.

Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is a common digestive problem that is thought to affect approximately 75% of the world's population. Lactose intolerance occurs when a person doesn't have enough of an enzyme called lactase which breaks down the natural sugar in milk (lactose). Typical symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, diarrhoea, flatulence, abdominal cramps and skin conditions.

If you suspect an intolerance to lactose, it would be a good idea to remove dairy for a minimum of 4-6 weeks to give the gut lining a chance to heal. You can then re-introduce and note any symptoms that develop. If symptoms persist you may want to consider significantly reducing or eliminating dairy completely from your diet.

How will I feel if I give up dairy?

Everyone will be a little different but these are some of the reported benefits of going dairy-free:

  • Less nasal congestion and stuffiness.

  • Better sleep.

  • Clearer skin.

  • More energy.

  • Weight loss.

  • Reduction in bloating/ other digestive symptoms.

  • Fewer headaches.

What are the alternatives if I don’t want to eat dairy?

There are many non-dairy options on the market to choose from: almond, hazelnut, cashew, flax, hemp, oat, rice and soy. You will want to choose the unsweetened varieties if there is an option. You can use these in porridge, overnight oats, smoothies and even baking.

Another option that some people may want to consider goat's or sheep's milk. Goat and Sheep's milk contain less lactose and contains A2 casein as opposed to the A1 casein found in most cow's milk. A2 casein, also found in milk produced from Guernsey and Jersey cows, is much easier to digest, contains less allergens and is less inflammatory than the A1 version. A recent study looking at casein in milk found that consumption of A2 type casein actually significantly raised glutathione levels.

The foods you need to eat when you’re giving up dairy.....

It will be important to include other healthy sources in your diet. That means letting more of these foods into your diet on a daily basis: cabbage, spring greens, boy choy, kale, broccoli, okra, almonds, soya (edamame) beans and tofu, and fish where you eat the bones (like tinned sardines).

The RDA for calcium is 700 mg a day.

  • A fist-sized serving of tofu contains between 200 mg and 800 mg. One serving in a stir fry could provide you with enough calcium for the day

  • Small can of sardines has 351 mg

  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds have 280 mg

  • Soy milk fortified with calcium contains the same amount as a glass of cow’s milk – about 250 mg in a 200 ml glass of milk

  • 2 tbsp chia seeds has 179 m

  • A cup of cooked kale has 177 mg.

  • A small handful (about 35g) almonds has nearly 100 mg

  • A cup of broccoli has 43 mg

Should I eat more spinach to increase calcium?

Spinach and chard contain oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb it properly. Even though spinach technically has a lot of calcium, it’s only a tenth as bio-available as that from milk due to the oxalic acid.

If you are thinking of giving up dairy but are planning on going out for pizza with friends, it's ok to make an exception. Although going completely dairy-free would be the goal, even taking most of the dairy out of your diet can bring benefits. For most dairy products, there is an excellent dairy alternative. Some are most surprising! Cashews, for example, can bring a delicious creaminess to a soup.


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