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Should I Cut Dairy?

This article considers the arguments for and against consuming dairy. There is a lot of conflicting information out there and many people are confused as to what the healthy (and ethical) choice is.

As a nutritional therapist, one of the most common questions people ask me is whether or not they should consume dairy.

Conventional wisdom (and the dairy industry) has it that dairy is essential to bone health and that going dairy-free increases the risk of several health conditions, including osteoporosis.

But there is another line of research that believes consumption of dairy by adults causes inflammation, which itself is thought to contribute to many of our most serious health conditions, including cancer.

Vegans would also point out (and I agree), that dairy farming is cruel to animals and that the deforestation necessary for cattle farming is contributing to global warming.

What are the benefits of dairy?

Dairy products contain a large amount of nutrients, including calcium, protein, phosphorus and vitamins D and B12. Most people are aware of the high calcium content, so lets look at that first.

Beyond the age of 30, our bones begin to break down at a faster rate than they are regenerated, so adequate calcium is essential to prevent weakness and erosion. The calcium that comes from milk is often considered to be a good choice for this process as it is thought to be more easily absorbed by the body than other plant-based foods. See my article on calcium from good plant-based sources of calcium as well as other calcium rich foods.

Cow’s milk also contains an omega 6 fatty acid that is considered to have various health benefits, also contained in grass-fed beef. Research indicates that this fatty acid can aid in weight loss and may also lower the risk of developing diabetes and cancer.

What are the drawbacks of dairy?

Humans have generally not evolved to drink milk after about the age of two, when breast milk is withdrawn. Some cultures have been including dairy in their diet for so long that they have become more tolerant than others who haven’t. For many eastern cultures in particular, dairy is a recent introduction and can cause a lot of health issues.

Regardless of our genetic disposition, there are some aspects of dairy that are unhealthy:

They contain growth hormones, which have been linked to certain cancers and other diseases.

They contain other hormones, such as oestrogen. While these are only found in small amounts, oestrogen dominance over progesterone has been associated with cancer, endometriosis, fibroids and even early menopause.

Dairy is often high in sugar. An average cup of milk contains around 3 teaspoons of sugar, which is half the recommended daily amount for a woman and a third of that for a man. The sugar comes in the form of lactose. In the case of lactose-free milk, the lactose is broken down into glucose, another type of sugar, albeit one that does not aggravate the gut.

Non-organic dairy products contain antibiotic residues, so it is important to consume organic dairy whenever possible.

Dairy increases acne. Although the mechanism behind this is still unclear, it may be something to do with the hormones present in dairy foods.

How will giving up dairy affect me?

Dairy affects everyone differently and so does giving it up. Some of the possible differences may be:

  • Less stuffiness and blocked noses

  • Improved sleep

  • Better skin

  • Increased energy

  • Weight loss

  • Improved digestion

  • Less headaches

There is also the animal welfare and environmental impact to consider but, as a nutritional therapist, I am only addressing the nutritional issues in this article.

What are the alternatives to dairy?

Some popular dairy alternatives include:

  • almond

  • coconut

  • oat

  • rice

These are largely used as milk alternatives, although they can also be used to make cheeses. They often come in unsweetened varieties, which should be opted for whenever possible. My favourites are almond and oat milk as they do not have too strong a taste. They are great for making porridge, overnight oats or in tea/coffee.

What to eat to replace the lost nutrients

The main nutrient that you will lose if you cut out dairy is calcium, which is important in bone support, as well as many other processes. If you are going dairy-free, it is important that you make up for this loss elsewhere. I do not recommend supplementing calcium without seeking the advice of a healthcare practitioner, as calcium toxicity can be just as dangerous as deficiency. You should be able to make up for the loss with a well-balanced diet. Foods that are rich in calcium include kale, broccoli, cabbage, sardines and almonds. Spinach and chard have a lot of calcium, but they also contain something called oxalic acid, which can make it more difficult for some to absorb nutrients, so we actually only absorb around a tenth of the available calcium, compared with milk.

But, wait, I couldn’t give up…

My cappuccino with milk. You may not like the taste of black coffee, but most people who take the time to develop a taste for it would never go back to milk. So start reducing the amount of milk you take until your taste buds become offended by its very presence. For most dairy products, there exist convincing non-dairy alternatives and supermarkets are starting to stock these as standard, which makes the transition even easier. As with everything, it is important to listen to your body. Keep a food diary and monitor any changes you notice, positive or negative. This will help you to decide whether dairy-free is the right direction for you.

As with any dietary change, you should check with your GP or qualified nutritional therapist about embarking on a dairy-free lifestyle.

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