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Is Dairy Bad?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is Dairy Bad?

This question was posed to me by a friend recently, and it's one that comes up fairly frequently. There is a lot of confusion about dairy. On the one hand, we've been taught since we were knee high that we must drink our milk to grow up big and strong. Mothers feel worried and even guilty if they consider not giving their children dairy. Dairy products have become synonymous with "calcium" in our minds. Women in particular, trying to keep our bones strong and avoiding osteoporosis in our later years, have learned that milk and dairy products are critical. Not to mention that in the last 10 years (ish) articles continue to be published that quote studies indicating that dairy helps us to keep our weight down. The dairy industry has certainly done an effective job of marketing and convincing us that without dairy, we'll become frail and weak. Images of elderly grandmother types with hunched backs shattering a wrist from picking up a frying pan come to mind.

Today I want to expose the myths about dairy and give you some information about both dairy and calcium alternatives. So:

Is dairy bad?

The short answer: Mostly, yes. Milk doesn't do many bodies much good. Traditional, pasteurized cow's dairy that is. Here are some of the issues with dairy:

Protein content
Cow's milk has 3 times more protein than human milk, and a bit less fat (in the case of the traditionally recommended non-fat milk, it has NO fat). Human milk also has double the carb content. The ratio of these nutrients indicates that cow's milk is not designed for the human body. This high protein content (along with lactose intolerance, to be explained in a moment) makes dairy the number one allergen by far. When we consume foods that are not properly digested, and especially those with anabolic (build-up) properties like protein and calcium, the excess is not efficiently eliminated, and leads to problems of excretion like asthma, allergies, strep throat, tonsilitis, ear infections, pimples/acne, overweight, and excessive mucous and phlegm.

By the time we reach late childhood or adolescence, 70% of people have lost the enzyme required to break down lactose (milk sugar). In fact, lactose intolerance is so common, those who retain the ability to digest it really should be called "lactose persistent" rather than labeling those who lose it as intolerant. This should be a hint that we aren't really meant to consume it. In fact, what other species can you name that drinks the milk of another species? It's rather odd actually. Less commonly known is that many people are allergic to the proteins in dairy (casein, whey).

Calcium Deficiency
The consumption of milk/dairy in fact CONTRIBUTES largely to a deficiency in calcium in the body! Vegetarians have been shown to have higher bone density than meat eaters of the same age, and countries that have the highest dairy intake also have the most osteoporosis (Allergies, Disease in Disguise, Carolee Bateson-Koch, ND). This is so opposite of everything we've been taught to believe, I know it's hard to accept. There are a few ways this is so:

  1. Cow's milk has a lower ratio of Calcium to Phosphorous (1.27:1 versus 2.35:1 in human milk). Phosphorous binds to Calcium in the digestive tract, making it less absorbable.
  2. If you are unable to digest it (as most are), the lactose ferments in your digestive tract. This produces lactic acid, which binds with the Calcium and Magnesium, making them less available for the body.
  3. Pasteurization reduces 50% of available calcium through the process of pasteurization.
  4. Low fat and skim milk lack the fat necessary for transport of calcium through cell walls.

On top of everything, dairy cows (as with all livestock) are pumped with antibiotics to prevent disease that would be rampant due to living conditions. They are also fed with processed grains that are not really meant for their consumption. In the US they also have to worry about BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) which luckily is banned in Canada.

The Myth of the Weight Loss Connection
We've all heard time and again that "research proves that dairy helps you burn more fat and lose weight." However in reality, there have only been 3 very small studies that found that people lost weight when they ate dairy foods AND CUT CALORIES. And all 3 of those studies were funded by one researcher who had a patent on the claim that dairy helps with weight loss. Since then, 2 new studies have in fact shown that dairy foods don't have any affect on weight one way or another. (Nutrition Action Healthletter Sept 2005) The results are inconclusive at best. There is some evidence (still inconclusive) that dairy may help weight loss in individuals who are overweight, eating too little calcium, with a diet that isn't too high in protein or too low in calories. That's a lot of "ifs." And dairy in particular is not necessarily required for the effect; maybe calcium from other sources would have the same result. The bottom line though is that the claims being made by marketers for the dairy industry have greatly stretched what the research has indicated.

So if I don't eat dairy, where am I getting my Calcium?
It's interesting how concerned we are with Calcium. Not that it's not important, but it's really just one of many essential minerals the body needs to be healthy. A potassium deficiency, for example, can cause heart failure. But you never hear anyone worrying about potassium. Maybe that's because there's no fearmongering "Banana council" to "educate" us. [/rant]

So ok, I've convinced you that dairy is effectively junk food. But you want to make sure you get your calcium. In fact it is surprisingly not that hard to do.

First, let's look at ways you can stop your body from losing the calcium you get:
  • reduce your caffeine intake (coffee, tea, pop, chocolate) - it causes increased calcium loss in urine
  • reduce intake of refined sugar - it also increases calcium loss through urine; as well, it reduces the body's ability to absorb calcium
  • reduce phosphorous (POP is the biggest source in most people's diets; also cow's dairy, red meat) - it binds to calcium and makes it less absorbable
  • reduce salt - increases calcium loss through urine
  • Make sure you get your Vit D (eggs, liver, mushrooms, 20 min of sun exposure several times a week, or supplement) - calcium can't be used without Vit D
  • don't overeat protein - it is acid forming; the body will protect the pH level of blood by pulling minerals (especially calcium) from the bones to buffer the acidity
  • smoking, alcohol, and corticocosteroid medications also contribute to calcium loss
Alternate Sources of Calcium
1 cup of cow's milk provides 288mg of calcium. Other sources and the amount you can get from a typical serving are:

Nuts and Seeds
Almonds 1/4 cup 150mg
Hazelnuts 1/4 cup 106mg
Sesame Seeds 2 tbsp 264mg
Walnuts 1/4 cup 54mg
Sunflower Seeds 1/4 cup 65mg

Butters and Milks made from nuts and seeds are also be great sources of Calcium. And since these products are not heated or cooked, the calcium is highly absorbable.

Vegetables Most vegetables (especially GREEN ones like leafy greens and broccoli) provide between 20 and 75mg per half cup. Lamb's quarters provide 232mg in a half cup! Sea vegetables (agar, kelp) provide about 60mg and Wakame provides 150mg

Beans (1 cup servings)
Chickpeas 80mg
Navy beans 128mg
Soybeans 460mg
Tofu 258mg
Tempeh 172mg
Pinto beans 82mg

Canned Fish (5 oz serving)
Salmon 338mg
Sardines 625mg

Molasses (1 tbsp)
Blackstrap 137mg
Barbados 49mg

Meeting Daily Requirements
You can see by the above values, it's really not that hard to get your Calcium with non-dairy sources. The average daily intake recommended in Canada is 1000mg (male and female adults). If you had a serving of almonds (150), 2 cups of leafy greens (150-200), a serving of salmon (338mg), a serving of broccoli (100) a serving of tempeh (172), and some almond butter (225mg) and you would exceed the DRI values. As well, for those who are vegetarians, less intake is required because it is more absorbable without animal foods in the diet.

Not ready to make the switch?
Ok, it's not all just about the calcium, you LIKE milk, yogurt, cheese, and of course ice cream? You don't want to give it up. Fine. Here are a few recommendations:

  • If you're able to digest it, no one says it's completely unhealthy to have SOME dairy in your diet; consider it a treat, and have it in moderation
  • If you have trouble digesting it, consider trying raw/unpasteurized dairy. It still has live enzymes that will help you digest it. Milk can be hard to find, you'll have to purchase directly from farmers, and being unpasteurized, you'll need to consume it fairly quickly to avoid spoiling. Cheese (due to some kind of loopholes in regulatory laws) is easier to find made from raw milk.
  • Try goat's milk, yogurt and cheese. It's closer in nutrient content to human milk than cow's, so again, easier to digest.
  • There are a myriad of types of alternative milks on the market. Rice milk, Hemp milk, Soy milk (which I wouldn't really recommend as it's a processed food often made from non-organic and GMO'd sources), and my favourite, Almond Milk (the unsweetened is the closest in taste to skim milk that I could find when I was getting off milk). Try them for your cereals and smoothies, or even just drink a glass. You might be surprised!
  • There are also some great alternatives to ice cream. There are soy versions (again, not high on my list for the same reasons), rice versions, and more recently I'm finding COCONUT versions which are truly delicious. Have some chocolate coconut "ice cream" with fresh raspberries on top, now THAT is a TREAT!
My story
I used to be a HUGE dairy fanatic. When I was eating healthfully (I used to swing back and forth from eating REEEEALLY bad to eating REEEALLY healthfully), I would eat 4 servings of dairy a day (milk in my cereal, yogurt and cottage cheese for snacks, more milk at dinner). I always found when I was eating healthfully I seemed to get all backed up (hey, I'm a nutritionist, we talk about poo. Deal with it.). I was so confused because I was eating so much fibre, much more than when I was on a "junk food diet." I thought maybe the fat content of the junk food diet was keeping me "going." Then I learned about dairy and I decided to try going off it for a couple weeks. Well it didn't even take that long. That was the cause of my problems.

And, my beautiful little niece, she had the same problem - she was constipated practically from birth, and had to be hospitalized at one point. After trying laxative treatment for 6 months, and it not getting any better, we took her off dairy and within a few days, ta daaaah, all better.

Eliminating dairy was hard at first, I craved it for quite a while. But now I just can't imagine drinking a big glass of milk. And while at first I was strict - I carefully examined every label and avoided everything baked or made with milk or milk protein (casein and whey) or milk sugar (lactose) in it, after 6 months or a year I loosened up. Now I find I can tolerate a little milk here and there without adverse affects (some cream in my coffee, an ice cream on a hot day at the beach). But, generally it's not part of my regular diet anymore.

You may not be entirely aware of how dairy affects you, but I think with all the options out there now, there's no real need for dairy. You can easily get enough calcium through non dairy sources, that in my opinion, "why bother?" It doesn't help your health, even if you're not sure it's actually"hurting" you.

Allergies, Disease in Disguise, Carolee Bateson-Koch
Food and Healing, AnneMarie Colbin
Nutrition in Action Healthletter, Sept 2005
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