We’ve been told that we require dairy products for good health and to build strong bones – but for most of us, dairy isn’t health-supportive. Dairy is considered a staple food in many societies. However, when we look closely at nature human beings are the only mammals that drink milk past weaning, plus we’re the only ones who consume the milk of another species.
When clients come to me, the first foods I have them eliminate are dairy and gluten. You can read more about the dangers of gluten here (or listen to my podcast episode about it), and as for dairy, here I’d like to talk about the many reasons why dairy is damaging to so many people.
How Dairy Impacts Our Health
Dairy has a multitude of negative effects in different parts of the body. In some cases, issues may be caused by dairy consumption – while in other situations, dairy aggravates an existing health condition.
Lactose Intolerance and Genetics
Most of us – about 70% to 75% – don’t have the lactase enzyme required to digest the lactose found in milk. We’re able to digest lactose when we’re young, but this ability doesn’t persist into adulthood. This can lead to digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, diarrhea, constipation and excess mucus production.
Secondary Lactose Intolerance
Some of us suffer from secondary lactose intolerance, which happens when the microvilli that produce lactase get destroyed. This can happen due to intestinal illnesses, bacteria overgrowth, injuries or surgery in the intestines, or inflammatory bowel diseases.
Many of us don’t think of milk as a sugar, but it is – lactose is a type of sugar. If we are unable to properly digest dairy, the lactose feeds the bad bacteria in the gut or, at the very least, shifts the composition of the gut microbiome. Our community of intestinal bacteria plays a huge role in immunity, neurological health, weight management and blood sugar balance.
Breast Cancer Risk
A recent study of 52,795 women showed that higher dairy intakes were linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. What is interesting is the researchers studied a population of Adventists, who are known in the scientific literature to have healthier diet and lifestyle habits than the general population. If a healthy population is developing cancer from dairy products, we need to pay attention to this ‘canary in the coal mine’.
Leaky Gut and Immunity
The small intestine is designed to control what goes into it, allowing some things through and blocking other things out. It is known as a semi-permeable membrane because of this selective quality. When the intestinal lining is damaged, this protective barrier is compromised and can lead to leaky gut, which in turn can cause inflammation and autoimmune conditions.
Dairy allergies are one of the most common found in children and they are on the rise. Allergies begins in the digestive tract, specifically our small intestine, which allows some things through and keeps other things out. When a baby is born, their gut is naturally leaky. This is a good thing. It allows for all the beneficial components of breast milk to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream to support optimal growth and development. As the infant gets older, their gut becomes less leaky, and eventually develops into a mature semi-permeable intestine. This process is called closure.
Before closure occurs, the infant is in a vulnerable state. If the infant is fed anything other than breast milk, those items have a greater ability to pass through their permeable intestines and into the blood stream, triggering the immune system.
Dairy can aggravate a number of skin conditions, including acne, eczema and dermatitis.
Many dairy products contain casomorphins, proteins that result from the casein in dairy breaking down. These casomorphins connect with opiate receptors in the brain and make you feel good. That’s partially why it’s so hard to stop eating cheese or ice cream (another big reason is the sugar content of many dairy products).
Today’s Dairy is Not Yesterday’s Dairy
Many argue that humans have been consuming dairy for hundreds of years and its natural for us to continue to do so. However, today’s dairy is not the same dairy our ancestors ate 150 years ago.
Dairy products used to be:
- High in good fat
- Consumed in moderation
Nowadays dairy products are:
- Pasteurized, which destroys most of its nutrients
- Filled with antibiotics, hormones and preservatives
- Difficult to digest
- Fortified with synthetic vitamins, minerals and probiotics to replace the nutrients that were destroyed during pasteurization
- Altered to be low-fat or fat-free, with refined sugars and preservatives added to replace the fat
- Consumed in excess
Calcium and Bone Health
Calcium is likely the first thing you think of when you consider dairy products – but have you ever thought about why we are so obsessed with it? It’s partially the work of the dairy industry, who has spent millions of dollars in advertising to indoctrinate us into thinking that we should have multiple servings per day as outlined in nutrition models and food guides of westernized countries. We clearly do not need to consume these copious amounts of dairy, or even dairy at all. How do we know this? Seventy percent of the world’s population doesn’t consume dairy after they are weaned and have no issues with calcium deficiency.
Yes, our bones are made up of mostly calcium. However, it is way too simplistic to think that just because they are made of mostly calcium we can eat more calcium to make them stronger. That’s like thinking if you want to build a bigger shed, you need to get more two-by-fours. It still takes nails, tape measures, drills, tools, glues and work to build that shed. Likewise, the body requires multiple cofactors in order to assimilate the calcium into the bony matrix. We also need magnesium, Vitamin D, Vitamin K, phosphorus, strontium and boron.
In westernized countries we consume the most calcium yet have the highest rates of osteoporosis. This should make us think twice about eating more calcium for better bones. For example:
- Countries that consume the highest amount of dairy (mainly in North America) have a higher incidence of hip fractures.
- An Italian study of women who consumed between 440 and 1,025 mg of calcium per day found a slightly increased number of hip fractures occurred with higher milk intakes.
- A Swedish 20-year study that followed 61,433 women and 45,339 men discovered that higher milk intakes led to an increased risk of mortality in both sexes, and a higher incidence of fractures in the women.
Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
Cows only drink milk until they are weaned. So here’s a game-changing question: where do adult cows get their calcium? The answer is grass. Lots and lots of leafy green vegetables called grass.
Green leafy vegetables are chock-full of calcium. There are also many other non-dairy sources of calcium. Here are a few examples:
- Collards (1 cup boiled) – 357 mg
- Rhubarb (1 cup cooked) – 348 mg
- Sardines (3 oz.) – 325 mg
- Spinach (1 cup boiled ) – 291 mg
- Turnip greens (1 cup boiled) – 249mg
- Black-eyed peas (1 cup cooled) – 211 mg
- Kale (1 cup boiled) – 179 mg
- Tahini (1 tbsp) – 64 mg
The Real Problem
Have you ever tried to fill up a bathtub with the drain open? If you knew the drain was open, your answer is probably “no”. But what if the drain was open and you didn’t even know it? You would keep on filling up that tub, without actually ever filling it.
This is exactly what is going on with calcium. Many people have their bathtub drains open. In other words, they are losing calcium and not able to maintain their stores for multiple reasons.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic, due to fact that most people are indoors most of the year. I have every client get their vitamin D levels checked. Vitamin D is a critical hormone-like vitamin that plays many roles, but has a particularly important role in calcium metabolism. It is responsible for improving absorption of calcium from our food, reabsorbing it in the kidneys, and assimilating it into the bones and teeth. Without enough Vitamin D, we lose 30-80% of all calcium consumed.
Low Stomach Acid
The stomach is the beginning of the whole “digestive cascade”. A critical role of the stomach (specifically the parietal cells), is to secrete large amounts of hydrochloric acid (HCl). This release of HCl is critical for absorption of all minerals, particularly calcium. In fact, one of the risk factors associated with long-term antacid use is the risk of bone fractures.
People are at risk for HCl deficiency if they have any of the following: over 40 years old, Vitamin B3 deficiency, zinc deficiency, overly stressed, H. Pylori infection, or autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
Lack of Exercise
One of the most important ways to maintain bone mass is to exercise regularly. What many people don’t realize is that the bone is constantly remodelling. Osteoclasts break bone down and osteoblasts build it up. When you create resistance against the bone by contracting muscles you create micro damages, which then stimulate the osteoblasts to build the bone back up stronger.
When I used to work at a health food store, countless middle-aged women would come in with a coffee in hand asking me where the calcium supplements were. Little did they know (until I told them) that the coffee they were currently enjoying was draining their body of calcium.
Coffee and other caffeinated beverages (cola and tea) have a diuretic effect, which causes an increased release of urine and with that, minerals.
Every emotional state is matched by a chemical state in the body. Dr. Bernard Jensen, who saw over 350,000 patients in his lifetime, taught that one of the quickest ways to acidify the body is to have negative thoughts. These chemical reactions have been called the “molecules of emotion” by neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candice Pert.
When the blood becomes acidic it will do whatever it can to maintain pH (it needs to stay in a very tight range of 7.35 and 7.45 pH), and the bones are an abundant source of minerals. These minerals can be liberated from the bone to increase the pH of acidic blood. Not only do emotions affect the blood pH, but foods do as well. Sugar, bad fats, dairy and excessive carbohydrates, all increase the acidity of the body.
Physiologically, high stress can also impact bone loss by altering our hormones, and disrupting the nervous system which can result in a higher risk of osteoporosis.
What Type of Dairy Is Best to Consume – And Who Should Eat It?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, dairy and gluten and the first two foods I will recommend a client remove from their diet. Most of my clients don’t come to me for preventative reasons – they visit my clinic because they have an existing, persistent health issue that is affecting their wellness and vitality.
If, however, you don’t have any health conditions and know you are in the 25-30% minority who can digest dairy products, then you can consider adding them to your diet in small amounts. But quality matters. I recommend consuming dairy that is:
- Organic and grass-fed (evidence indicates these contain more nutrients than conventional dairy products)
- Fermented, to increase digestibility
- Raw if possible, to maintain more nutrients and because raw dairy is simpler to digest
- Sheep or goat dairy can be easier to tolerate than cow dairy
The Bottom Line
Dairy is not a necessary food for bone health or overall health. It is critical to make sure that your Vitamin D levels are in the optimal range, digestion is functioning, you are exercising daily, avoiding diuretics, and managing stress before even considering calcium supplementation.
You’ll also want to ensure you are consuming adequate amounts of the other nutrients needed for bone health such as boron, magnesium, silica, Vitamin K, Vitamin D, phosphorus, and many others. Many of these can be obtained from a whole foods diet – one that is rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, gluten-free grains, and quality protein sources.
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