Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Got Milk?

I will start this post with a confession:  I love dairy. I am especially enamoured with artisan cheeses, including clothbound cheddar, gouda, brie, and camembert. Actually, the only cheese I'm not fond of are those processed squares of shiny orangeness that are supposed to be cheese slices, and blue cheese (although I do enjoy it when used to complement a meat dish).  I'll drink the occasional glass of milk and have been known to make a homemade batch of yogurt on occasion. Ice cream is, of course, an indulgence during the summer months.  

Yes, I think most of us would agree ice cream is an indulgence right?  It's hardly the poster child for health, given its high fat content and the added sugar. Ice cream has been labelled the 'black sheep' of the dairy family, while skim milk and yogurt have received rave reviews and accolades for their health benefits.  We all know the ad series where celebrities with carefully applied milk moustaches stare at us, a caption reading 'Got Milk?' there to give us a friendly reminder that we need to meet our daily dairy needs if we are to be strong and healthy.

Well, I'm here to call out ALL dairy for what it is: an indulgence.  Dairy is no more a dietary need than popsicles or Fruit Loops.  We have been led to believe that dairy is the almost-perfect food,  a holy grail of nutrition. Parents are reminded (or is it reprimanded) by government, by health practitioners, and by magazine ads (funded by the Milk Marketing Board, of course) that kids, in particular, need milk if they are to grow and have strong bones. Amongst its many apparent benefits, milk serves as a great source of protein, vitamin D, and calcium. Calcium is, of course, the star nutrient of milk. In fact,  I bet if you asked the average person to name three sources of calcium, they'd say milk, cheese and yogurt! 

I haven't the time nor, to be quite frank, the in-depth knowledge to provide an scholarly rebuttal of the claims made on dairy's behalf, however, I will attempt to provide some food for thought that I hope you will take into account if seeking ways to better your health or that of your children.


I will concede that milk contains calcium and that calcium is an important mineral for humans.

The problem is that the pasteurization of milk destroys some of the calcium in milk and, more notably, the accompanying enzymes that are necessary for the calcium to be absorbed into the body. Skim milk that is pasteurized is the worst source of calcium because it also lacks fat that would aid in the body's absorption of calcium.  

In short, if you actually care to about your calcium intake you have to look beyond the calcium content in a food and examine whether the calcium from that food will be readily absorbed.

Oh, I convinced you already? You were only taking in dairy for the calcium and now that you see it's not a great source of calcium, you want to give it up and seek out foods that are high in calcium which will be better absorbed by the body?  Wonderful! 

And you want me to suggest some such foods?  Sure! The best sources of dietary calcium include sesame seeds, salmon (with bones), walnuts, green leafy vegetables, almonds and beef.  Raw dairy products (i.e. not pasteurized) are also a good source of calcium but illegal in many parts of North America.  


When I use the word allergen, I am referring to food intolerances and sensitivities.  Most people are aware of the term 'lactose intolerant' and consider this to mean a person who is unable to digest lactose (a sugar in milk and most dairy products) due to a lack of an enzyme called lactase, which is needed for digestion of lactose. Intolerance to a protein called casein can also cause dairy intolerance.   

The problem with labeling something as an allergy or intolerance is that people are convinced they will surely know if they have an allergic reaction. If we are thinking of allergies to food as we do to a bee sting or pollen, we would imagine that the symptoms of a food allergy would be sudden and obvious.  This, however, is not the case. While some people will have severe reactions to consuming a food, such as dairy, many reactions to food allergies take place within the body and are assumed to be normal, albeit uncomfortable, bodily experiences such as headaches, congestion, bloating, skin problems, and so on.  

Convinced of their allergy-free status, most people don't even consider taking a break from dairy to see if their general health improves with the removal of this food group. One presumes they are just prone to acne or susceptible to headaches and that bloating is a normal consequence of eating. 

As this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I'm not going to provide you with all of the facts regarding milk intolerance, but certainly a simple google search of 'dairy intolerance' will turn up plenty of reasonably reliable sources that suggests dairy intolerance is much, much more common than most of us would expect. One site I landed on suggested that 75 percent of ALL people have an intolerance to dairy at some level.  The rates of intolerance are highest amongst those ethnicities/populations that have not historically consumed diary, such as Asians and Africans, while those of Northen European descent may be slightly less intolerant, although I would propose that as we age, our intolerance for dairy will increase and, with it, the damage we do to our internal systems every time we indulge in cheese, milk, etc.

Curious as to whether, in fact, that stuffed up nose of yours is the result of too many nights with Ben & Jerry's?  There are a few ways to determine if you are intolerant to a specific food or group of foods. The expensive (but easier) way is to get an allergen test done. You may be surprised to discover that you have sensitivities to foods you've eaten in large quantities throughout the course of your life and foods that you only occasionally consume.  There is another way, however, to test for food intolerances and that's by doing an elimination diet. It will require a temporary elimination of many of the foods you probably love, which also just happen to be the most common sources of allergens, including wheat (gluten), dairy,  sugar and yeast.  

There are plenty of sources on the internet to help guide you in an elimination diet.  It's not easy, but if you can do it, your body may reap the benefits for years to come.   Be aware that often times the foods we most crave are actually the ones we are allergic too. This results from the production of endogenous opiods in the body when there is a food reaction.


This is my third and, admittedly, weakest argument against dairy.  Yes, that's right, the possible connection between dairy and cancer is my weakest argument. This is not to dismiss the seriousness of cancer, but rather to acknowledge that I am not entirely convinced of the research that links dairy and cancer.

The China Study is a much-touted research study that, at its very core, claims that the only 'safe' form of protein for humans is vegetable-based protein. This, of course,  has vegans cheering with glee and praising the rigor of the research process that was carried out by The China Study's author, Colin T. Campbell.   Dairy products, so it appears, are given particular notoriety due to the high levels of casein they contain. Casein is a type of protein and, according to one summary of Campbell's findings on casein it was noted that ' the connection between casein and cancer was so profound that the scientists could literally turn cancer growth on and off in the laboratory animals simply by altering the level of casein protein in their diets like a light switch.' (Source: http://www.wholevegan.com/casein_protein.html). I must mention that The China Study included extensive research beyond the laboratory. Again, I encourage you to seek out more information about The China Study and the possible link between dairy and cancer if you are so inclined.


The more I study nutrition, the more I am convinced that the only true way to determine what is best for your health is to become your own guinea pig. I've read so many conflicting studies about pretty much every diet and type of food, that one can easily be swayed one way or the other if they want to be.   There are some things that are generally agreed upon, however, and the fact that milk is a common allergen seems to be generally accepted by sources that are not being funded by dairy boards! 

If you want to know whether you'd be better off without dairy in your diet, I suggest you try cutting it out for a month or two. Note that if you have other food allergies, however, you may not notice any difference in your well-being as your body will still be suffering from the other allergens (hence the suggestion of an elimination diet).

I am on my way to eliminating dairy, but first I am eliminating alcohol and wheat. These are two common allergens that I am most comfortable going without. The harder ones for me to eliminate will be dairy and sugar, but I will do it!  Oh, and did I mention that a food allergy need not lead to a lifetime ban of the incriminating food?  Healing your digestive system/gut and giving it a break from food allergens can do wonders for your overall health and, in time, you may be able to indulge (on occasion) in foods you were once sensitive to without suffering any side effects.

The End.  


Rob said...

Good stuff S - I am sticking with the wine!

Shannon Courtney said...

Rob, I wanted to go deeper with respect to my skepticism of The China Study, but time did not allow! Wine is where it is at.

Borisnikov said...

This post makes me want to cry. I pine for the days where info was not so readily accessible and people lived in blissful ignorance (the kind that makes you worry less about how bad things are for you).

I would have such a hard time giving up the foods you are trying to. Dairy? I don't drink as much milk as I once did but I too love all sorts of cheeses... and the creamy Greek yogurts we can so easily buy now? mmmmmm. Alcohol? I quietly sob at the thought of losing the bubbly and fermented beverages I love. Wheat? I'm not a big pasta and bread guy but they can be soooo soul warming when prepared properly. And sugar?! I couldn't live without the sweet blast that one gets from a Werthers chewy caramel or the pure joy of a delectable home made pastry from my favorite soup and sandwich shop. (mmmm sandwiches. PRETZLE BREAD?!!!) Anyways... I think you get my point.

My wife and I try to eat the best we can by preparing meals built from whole foods and keeping as much pre-prepared stuff out of our diet as we can. It's more work but it tastes better and no doubt is better for us and our family. I just don't think I could ever bring myself to stop enjoying the foods I love, unless faced with a serious health issue. We try to teach our kids to make healthy choices (as much as you can teach 1, 3, and 6 year old boys) but being healthy for us also includes enjoying some things that probably aren't the best for you. It's one thing to take care of a real allergy or health problem that one has. Its a whole other thing to eliminate things just because you can. For me its everything in moderation I guess right? I could probably eat a little less though:P Thanks for sharing!

Shannon Courtney said...

Borisnikov - Thank you for reading and for your comment. I know, it's sooo hard isn't it? I love sugar, that is my biggest weakness. I think it's really, really hard to give something up unless, as you say, you are facing a serious health condition. It's hard to imagine that we are doing our bodies any harm until our body lets us know via a disease/condition. I think what you are doing is wonderful - incremental changes are how big changes usually happen. Getting rid of the processed foods and preparing whole foods is awesome - your kids are better off than most of their counterparts, I am sure.

My elimination diet may not be long term - the goal is to discover which foods my body doesn't like. The only way to figure that out is to remove the common culprits, then reintroduce them one at a time and see how my body reacts. I have a friend who was suffering major digestive issues and did an elimination diet - the tiniest bit of gluten used to cause her great pain, but now she can have it on occasion without any repercussions. Giving her body time to heal and now it is primed to signal her when it disagrees with what she is eating.

It's all a journey and we're all works in progress. All the best to you and your family on yours !

Anonymous said...

I've recently shifted my perspective of dairy products, seeing them primarily as a fat source now rather than a protein/calcium source. I've cut out quite a bit of the dairy in my diet since speaking with you, though greek yogurt and milk are still in my breakfast smoothie.

Glad you mentioned other calcium sources, and even happier that many of those items are already in our diet.