When we were growing up, most of us were encouraged from those around us to drink milk, lots of milk. But is milk what it used to be, and even if so, is it something that we need to be consuming?
Dairy – A History
To understand dairy today, it is important to study its history. Between 1991 and 2004, the number of U.S. dairies decreased by half, while dairies with an excess of 100 cows increased by 94 percent. What does this mean for us, the consumer?
Dairy has become a very big, powerful industry. While mom-and-pop operations tend to cater more towards quality and tradition, big businesses tends to do anything to increase profits. This drive to increase profit has led to changes that impact both our health and our sense of what is morally acceptable.
One way that we can see this is by the amount of milk produced by individual cows. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of dairy cows decreased by half, however the average milk yield more than tripled! Clearly this is not natural, so what has changed to encourage these drastically higher yields?
Dairy cows live in cramped, unnatural conditions where they are fed diets high in protein and low in fiber, opposite of their natural grass diet, which is high in fiber and low in nutritional density. Cows are fed this way to increase the amount of milk that they produce, but this way of feeding and living also makes the cows sick. To keep the cows alive and producing, they are pumped full of antibiotics. These do not just disappear – they are passed from the cows directly to us when we consume dairy products. This could lead to antibiotic resistance, and it is not fully understood what health problems this could pose.
To increase the production of milk, cows are given synthetic growth hormones. These hormones are passed through to us, along with the oodles of natural hormones and growth factors naturally found in milk. Think about it – milk is produced in mammals to create the nutrition and resources for a small mammal to grow quickly. In cows, these hormones are meant to bring an 85 lb calf to a full grown 1,500 lbs in a short period of time. What do these hormones mean for our health?
The growth hormones found in dairy may affect our normal hormonal function. One hormone added to cow’s milk, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), has been implicated in increased breast and prostate cancer risk. In a study published by the Journal of Nutrition in 2013, the diet of 22,000 participants was tracked for 28 years. It was found that those who consumed greater than 2.5 servings of dairy products daily had an increased risk of prostate cancer compared to those who consumed less than one half of a serving per day.
Is any dairy good for you?
Let’s look again at a brief history. Until 10,000 years ago, humans did not have domesticated animals and thus did not have access to dairy products, other than from their mother during breast-feeding age. This is relatively short period of time in evolutionary terms. Due to this, the majority of us are unable to properly metabolize the sugar in milk, known as lactose.
Lactase, the enzyme used to break down lactose, is no longer produced in significant quantities after one is between the ages of 2 and 5, when breastfeeding would normally cease. Without lactase, one cannot digest dairy properly.
There are other properties of dairy that some people will struggle with. Proteins in dairy include casein and whey. Casein has a molecular structure similar to that of gluten, and 50% of individuals who are gluten intolerant are intolerant to casein as well.
When you have difficulties digesting a food, that food does not simply leave your body without your obtaining nutritional benefit, but it can also cause your body harm. Both an inability to digest lactase along with a response to casein produces an inflammatory response. Inflammation is our body’s natural response to heal itself, however chronic inflammation is a whole different creature – it can lead to cancer, depression, heart disease, leaky gut, general unease, fatigue and many other issues.
Dairy causes digestive issues for 75% of people, which causes inflammation and frequently leads to bloating, cramps, gas, diarrhea and nausea. Many people find abdominal discomfort goes away when they completely cut dairy from their diets.
In addition to lactose and casein, dairy contains high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol. High levels of these have been implicated in increased heart attack risk, along with other health problems.
What about our bone health?
There is a common misconception that to have healthy bones one needs to drink tons of milk. Being taught this in school and being bombarded with dairy campaigns, this is a shock to most people.
The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study followed over 72,000 women for 18 years and found there to be no effect of increased milk consumption on bone fracture risk. So drinking milk will not help keep your bone strong.
Aren’t there other nutrients that you need from milk?
Every nutrient that you can obtain from milk, such as calcium, potassium, protein and fats can all be obtained from whole plant foods, such as vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruits.
It is important to reduce the causes of chronic inflammation in our diets, and the hormones in milk, whether organic, raw or regular milk can lead to inflammation.
Cut dairy out of your diet for 30 days and see how you feel. It you find better digestion, increased energy and improved health, you are likely one of the majority who have an inflammatory response to dairy.
If you do decide to continue eating dairy, do so in small quantities and be sure to consume organic, raw dairy.
- Dairy: 6 Reasons You Should Avoid it at All Costs
- The Big Business of Dairy Farming: Big Trouble for Cows
- Health Concerns About Dairy Products
- How Much do Cows Weigh
- Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. American Journal of Public Health. June 1997
- The Dangers of Dairy
- Whole milk intake is associated with prostate cancer-specific mortality among U.S. male physicians. Journal of Nutrition. 2013.