Milk, yoghurts and cheeses. Dairy products have always played a major part in our lives, however today with so many people switching to trending dairy-free diets are they still so relevant? I decided to investigate where we should draw the line on our dietary revolutions..
Why get rid of something that’s been part of our diet for over 9,000 years? Well, some of us have no choice in the matter due to lactose intolerance. It is estimated that roughly 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. These individuals are unable to properly digest lactose and often complain of abdominal bloating after consuming lactose containing foods. Unless congenitally determined, lactose intolerance develops usually due to lactase deficiency. Lactase is an enzyme which is responsible for the breakdown of lactose into glucose, so that it can be utilized by the tissues of our bodies. Our tolerance or intolerance for lactose is determined by a series of mutations within our genes. Hence certain populations can be more predisposed towards lactose intolerance due to geographically determined infiltration of this gene. For example over 70% of europeans are lactose tolerant, whilst in the African continent only around 15-20% of population are tolerant to lactose. Naturally those who cannot tolerate the lactose follow a dairy free diet.
Aside from lactose intolerance there’s also some individuals who are allergic to the proteins found in milk based products. This group of people will have an immunologically mediated reaction when confronted with those and shouldn’t consume products that contain milk. Milk allergy is different from lactose intolerance as it is mediated by the hypersensitivity of the immunological system and not due to enzymatic deficiencies.
Along with issues associated with high saturated fat content, recently there have been some discussions in relation to the Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) present in dairy products and its role in the development of acne. There appears to be a link between higher milk consumption and an increased risk of acne, with a number of studies showing the correlation. However this hypothesis is also linked to the androgens and progesterone present in milk, rather than IGF-1 alone.
If you want to know for sure whether a lactose intolerance is causing your problems then there are two options, eliminating it from your diet for a few weeks to test or taking a food sensitivities test. Jamie’s post will cover this in more detail next week.
So what are the benefits of Dairy?
For those of us who don’t have milk hypersensitivity, what’s good in dairy for us? Well milk products are very rich in many vitamins and minerals. Drinking raw, unpasteurised milk, kefir or certain cheeses are probably the best source of dairy goodness. Untreated raw milk has a higher nutritional value than pasteurised milk as vitamins of the B-complex are destroyed by heat treatment. It is also said that drinking raw milk can help against things like allergies or asthma due to the animal allergens. Many people who are intolerant to pasteurized milk can actually tolerate raw milk.
First things first. Let’s start with what we already know. Dairy products such as milk are a great source of calcium for the body, there’s no question about it. Ever since we were young we were told that “it will make our bones stronger”, however there is some evidence now that this isn’t the case and that calcium can actually decrease bone strength due to it causing an acid imbalance. From doing more research, I think that this is unlikely to be totally true and also that the balance of calcium and magnesium could play one of the biggest roles in keeping bones strong.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body involved in processes such as:
- maintenance of the structural rigidity of bones and teeth
- hormonal and enzymatic activity
- blood clotting
- muscular contraction and relaxation
- nerve impulse transmission
A glass of milk whether it’s whole, semi skimmed or skimmed can provide us roughly from 200mg to 300mg of Calcium, which is definitely not bad considering that as adults, we should consume from around 700mg-1000mg per day. Normally, the calcium content in milk increases as the fat content decreases. The calcium found in milk, is not directly proportional to its fat content. It is a common misconception that the nutrient content decreases with the fat content.
Another major player here is Cobalamin – also known as Vitamin B12, nearly only found naturally in dairy, seafood and meat.
Cobalamins’ function is to:
- Maintain the normal function of nerves
- Synthesise various proteins
- Metabolise fats
- Assist in various chemical reactions
In short, it is a vitamin that your body requires to keep your nervous system, skin, eyes, hair and liver healthy. The body usually stores an adequate supply of B12 in the liver, that can last up to 3-5 years. (The exact time depends on our individual metabolism but it’s just a rough guideline). So, for example, if you were to stop consuming adequate amounts of B12, you would only discover it years later via symptoms suggesting deficiency. This can be very dangerous when identified too late, as it can lead to immune dysregulations, mental illnesses or neurological deterioration as seen in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases related to cognitive impairment. Hence it’s important to keep up with your B12 intake especially as this is one of the main deficiencies that non-dairy eaters, vegans and vegetarians can face. These diet groups can mitigate this by taking a highly available source of B12, methylcobalamin, as a supplement. Please note most supermarket bought B12 is not in this form.
Vitamin D is found in great amounts among dairy products and its adequate intake is also crucial for our bodies. This vitamin helps to maintain your blood calcium levels by controlling its absorption and excretion. Dairy products are usually supplemented with vitamin D, which is great for those not making the cut. For most people living in Northern Europe and colder climates they usually have some kind of vitamin D deficiency. In some studies, it has even been suggested that vitamin D may have an inhibitory function in development of certain cancers. As you may already know, sunlight is a great source of vitamin D, along with fish oils, egg yolks and yes, dairy too! Therefore if you’re about to get rid of dairy, make sure to scramble some eggs for breakfast.
The thin case against
With the demands of the 21st century lifestyle, the 3.3g of fat per 100ml in products like whole milk has definitely encouraged many to cut out dairy altogether. This is especially because many fear the 2.3g which is made up of saturated fats deemed as “bad”. Considering the recommended daily saturated fat intake is 24 grams per day, a glass of milk won’t be a huge game changer. However if your fat intake is generally high then high fatty dairy products will only add to this and exacerbate your condition. For those who have problems with controlling their overall fat intake, it is recommended to substitute to low fat dairy. Cutting out milk or cheese completely isn’t the only way out if you can discipline the rest of your diet. It is important to moderate and control what you consume; meal prep being one great way to do that. Yes, binge eating brie cheese with endless glasses of wine is not exactly great for your body, but with correct adjustments you really don’t have to compromise your guilty pleasures. Therefore: don’t be scared of “dairy fat”.
What if I want to completely cut out dairy?
This all sounds great so far, but what if you would like to get rid of it altogether? What will happen to the calcium? For those wanting to exclude dairy completely there’s still good news on the calcium front. Aside from dairy, it can also be found in many leafy greens, legumes and seafood. As long as you maintain your calcium stores via those it shouldn’t pose a problem for your bones.
The same cannot be said about cobalamin..
Here you’ll face a slight issue if you are about to commit to a vegetarian or a vegan diet as unfortunately you’ll have to supplement the missing cobalamin (vit B12). It is not found in plants and we don’t recommend having soy products that may be fortified with it. It is very important to keep your cobalamin levels in norm in order to avoid anemia. Anaemia is a condition characterised by a red blood cell deficiency, which in turn makes an individual tired, weak and intolerable to extensive physical exertion.
On top of calcium, B12 and vitamin D, dairy is also high in phosphorus, vitamin B2, potassium and magnesium to name a few. Luckily for vegans and people with dairy allergies those can be found in many leafy vegetables, beans, lentils and nuts. Hence as long as you eat those, additional supplementation aren’t always necessary.
Your 5 starting points
- To make sure you’ll avoid a B12 deficiency eat plenty of fish, eggs & meat (unless vegetarian/vegan) or take a high quality vitamin B12 supplement regularly. The exact same must be applied to vitamin D and if you consult your doctor they may suggest vitamin D supplementation anyway. Remember fish and seafood are really rich in Vitamin D too!
- On the calcium front, just make sure to eat a lot of green vegetables or fruits. However, yet again, if you’re unable to meet these demands you will have to take additional calcium tablets in order to avoid bone disease and other health issues.
- If you’re lactose intolerant you can try consume dairy in the form of raw milk, yogurts, kefir and other fermented products. The present lactobacillus in those, aids in lactose digestion so it improves lactose intolerance. Kefir is a great choice as it improves overall immunity, whilst having anticarcinogenic and antimicrobial properties.
- Always remember to consult a dietician or even a medical professional whenever you are planning on making drastic changes to your diet. Like with everything in life, our needs are best satisfied when they are individually catered. Yes, generalities can usually work for everyone but it’s always better to adjust your diet to your lifestyle.
- Regularly measure mineral & vitamin levels in order to avoid the health issues mentioned.
What’s the verdict?
Yes, you can still be healthy and function completely normally without dairy in your diet. However the effortless minerals and vitamins you would usually gain by drinking a glass of milk or eating a cube of cheese have to be carefully replaced. If you go for raw or fermented dairy products the benefits are even better.
Individuals with allergies and lactose intolerances don’t have a huge choice in the matter of eating dairy. If you do, really think about the commitment that a dairy free diet carries before eliminating it altogether from your life. Your health should always be the priority and your eating choices should be accommodated around it. Focusing on this will be your first step towards optimal living!