For a long time, dairy has been a common food group in many diets, being touted as the primary source of calcium and vitamin D; essential elements for strong bones and teeth. Dairy has always been an important part of the food pyramid, as recommended servings consistently suggest 2-3 daily. More recently, researchers and concerned health advocates have been challenging the dairy theory, leading to contradictory studies that have both revealed the lack of evidence supporting the health benefits of dairy, and suggested that, in many ways, it could be detrimental to our health. Excessive calcium and calcium supplements, for example, have been show to increase heart problems over time.
First, I think it is important to identify foods that qualify as dairy in order to prevent any confusion. A dairy product generally comes from the mammary glands of mammals, and contains a protein called casein. This includes milk, cream, cheese, butter, yogurt, keifer, and any other product derived from milk. (Ghee is derived from milk, however it is considered to be clarified butter, as it does not contain casein. Many people who cannot consume dairy have no issues with ghee.)
As a kid growing up, I remember parents pushing milk in my direction, claiming that I needed it if I wanted to be “big and strong someday.” The irony in that statement lies in the many studies recently conducted that examined the relationship between bone mineralization, fractures, and dairy consumption. What they found was no significant relationship between the two. Bone mineralization did not increase with the amount of dairy consumed, and fracture rates did not decrease when dairy consumption increased. There are several studies, however, that state just the opposite: that dairy does increase bone health, especially in adolescents. Who is correct in this situation remains unclear.
Some studies examining dairy consumption in relation to cancer rates continue to produce mixed results. Some long-term studies found a significant relationship linking an increase in dairy consumption with colorectal cancer rates, and a mild increase in prostate cancer rates. Others found just the opposite. There was minimal data linking other diseases like breast and pancreatic cancers with dairy consumption. Again, further research should be done to find anything definitive.
For some people, dairy can have the same effect as vegetables from the nightshade family. They cause inflammation and stiffness in joints, accentuating aches and pains. For me, this has been an important issue in my decision to reduce dairy from my diet. Additionally, more evidence points to substances (like growth hormones and antibiotics) showing up in the final product. Like most people, I am not thrilled about having those substances floating around in my glass. Some people have claimed that these substances have lead to premature development in young girls, however the scientific evidence for that is lacking as well. Regardless of whether or not dairy and its contaminants have an effect on our bodies, I am uncomfortable with the idea, and choose not to make it a part of my diet.
While there is little evidence supporting the health benefits of unpasteurized milk (and plenty of evidence supporting its tendency toward foodborne pathogens), many people who consume unpasteurized milk regularly claim that it helps with digestive issues and contains more nutrients, enzymes, and probiotics than pasteurized milk. Though I have never personally tried raw milk, I do know several people who drink it daily and swear by it. Despite how appealing raw milk sounds, especially if collected from grass-fed cows, I am more comfortable acquiring my enzymes, calcium and vitamin D from raw vegetables. Kale, spinach, broccoli, and okra are viable sources of these elements, and they have cancer-fighting properties. Pickled, fermented foods and foods in brine such as sauerkraut/kimche, pickles, komboucha, and olives all contain probiotics that serve as useful digestive aids. In the case against most dairy products, I am more likely to side with the vegetables. Additionally, not all probiotics are created equal. Those often found in dairy products don’t add to the functionality of the existing bacteria present in the digestive tract. Soil-based bacteria both varied and more well-equipped to populate the digestive tract.
The main form of dairy that I do consider to be essential exists in the form of grass-fed butter or ghee. These items contain healthy fats that are essential for our organs, omega-3’s, vitamins and fatty acids that are difficult to obtain through plant-based foods, and anti-inflammatory properties. Because the cows producing this butter are pasture raised and grass-fed, they are devoid of digestive issues that cows fed grains suffer from. It contains a higher percentage of nutrients without the additional substances like growth hormones and antibiotics that are found in conventional butter. Not only that, but the environmental impact is greatly reduced with pasture-raised cows, and they are treated more humanely.
Dairy cows, much like beef cows, are often kept in confined living spaces and as a result, are given antibiotics to prevent illness from spreading rapidly. They are often fed cheap food in the form of GMO grains which tend to upset their digestive systems because they aren’t designed to digest them. As you can imagine, this isn’t an ideal living situation, therefore the milk collected from these cows is heavy in unwanted substances, and lacking in nutrients. Furthermore, forests are often cleared for the purpose of supporting dairy farms, and the water and soil surrounding these farms is often contaminated with waste water runoff. Some studies examining salmon habitat found significant levels of steroids in waters adjacent to dairy farms. The environmental impacts of these operations seem, unfortunately, quite vast.
Luckily, there are several non-dairy products available today that make living without dairy much easier. Coconut oil, coconut milk, and nut milk from sprouted nuts are the best alternatives in my opinion. Leafy greens, fermented and pickled foods, and even some forms of algae can provide just as much calcium, enzymes, and probiotics as dairy products do, with additional health benefits to boot.
As with any animal bi-product, it is important to be aware of the source and the conditions under which it was harvested. Often times, if a product is harvested on a large-scale, careless measures will be taken to produce the highest yield possible at the lowest price. This then leads to unfavorable substances being used, pollution, and inhumane environments for the animals involved. Be responsible whenever you can and always look for healthy alternatives.
Thanks for reading!