As long as I’ve been studying health, there’s been an ongoing argument about the role of dairy products in human nutrition. If you do a quick Google search for inflammatory foods you’ll find that most of the web “experts” out there put milk and cheese on their Bad list. Many naturally-oriented healthcare practitioners believe that cow milk has no place in a healthy diet, frequently citing the fact that it’s a substance designed to make a calf gain more than a hundred pounds in its first few months of life – which is meant to prove that it’s suitable only for baby cows. I’ve used this example myself in my nutrition course, but I’m ready to revise it.
While I’ve never been one to demonize dairy (yogurt is probably my favorite food), I think I’ve been too hasty to accept negative viewpoints about it, and I believe the truth of it isn’t nearly as black-and-white as people want to make it. So I’d like to offer you a more balanced examination of dairy today.
First, let’s look at what the oldest sources say on the matter. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, milk products are considered to be moistening and fortifying to the body, though potentially to the point of causing phlegm when consumed in excess – and excess could be very little, depending on the person. Also, its ability to produce congestion is considered to more pronounced if it’s consumed cold.
In Ayurvedic Medicine (the traditional medical system of India), milk is said to deeply nourish the body, to build mass, balance the emotions, and to be cooling and grounding. Especially in light of Hindus’ reverence for cows, milk is considered to be an exceedingly special food. Along with honey, it’s revered as one of the only foods that can be consumed with no “violence” since it’s not a living organism. It may be excellent for, say, a skinny, anxious person (vata dominance) but perhaps not so good for an overweight, congested person (kapha dominance). Consumed in large amounts, cold, or by someone for whom “building mass” isn’t appropriate, it has the ability to cause phlegm or toxicity. Also, it is recommended that milk be drunk apart from other foods.
It bears mentioning that throughout most of the history of both of these medical systems, there was no mass dairy production, refrigeration, pasteurization, homogenization, antibiotic or hormone use in cattle, and cows ate grass – not grains and soybeans. In Ayurveda, milk is usually prescribed warm, raw, unhomogenized, and in moderation. Because of its relatively rich and heavy nature, consuming it with the addition of warming spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, turmeric, or ginger helps to make it more readily digestible.
The perspectives of these holistic systems highlight an important point – what it does to a person depends largely on (1) the person and (2) the way the milk is prepared and consumed. Think about how milk is presented to the baby for whom it was created – warm, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, and in a format that supports slow consumption. It’s reasonable to consider that rapidly downing a glass of cold, processed milk is quite a different experience for the body.
Despite the differences, however, several recent studies show that even the consumption of modern, processed dairy products generally has no inflammatory effect, and may even have an anti-inflammatory effect. For instance, a 2015 study called Dairy Products and Inflammation: A Review of the Clinical Evidence reviewed 52 clinical trials that looked at inflammatory markers in relationship to dairy consumption. In people who were specifically allergic to cow’s milk, there was an inflammatory response, but in those without an allergy, milk consumption decreased markers of inflammation.
The key here, then, is to determine if you’re allergic to milk. Often, but not always, you can figure this out by simply cutting all dairy products out of your diet for at least two weeks. If you feel better, this is a decent indication that your body doesn’t love dairy – at least, in the way you were consuming it before. Then, reintroduce it in generous amounts and see how you feel. If your energy declines or your skin gets itchy or you get phlegmy or anything else unpleasant happens, it’s likely a problematic food for you, and more investigation is warranted.
If you don’t experience any change, it might be safe to say your body handles dairy okay. But for a really clear test, I recommend cutting out not just dairy, but all common culprits in food sensitivities – wheat, corn, soy, eggs, beans, nuts, onions, garlic, and even fruit – eating a very clean, simple diet (you can look up “elimination diet” for more ideas) for two weeks and then, against this blank canvas, reintroduce dairy. Your body’s response should be more obvious.
If this elimination diet is too hardcore for you, but you’re willing to go one step further than just cutting out dairy, I recommend cutting out both dairy and gluten (wheat, barley, rye, oats – unless certified gluten free) at the same time, since some nutritionists have theorized that gluten sensitivity heightens dairy sensitivity by causing changes to the gut.
If you discover through your self-experimentation that you don’t feel well with dairy, do some more experimenting to determine if it’s all dairy or just certain forms. Try yogurt – both full-fat and non-fat. Try butter. Try plain milk. Try cheese – both soft cheeses and hard cheeses. If you’re accustomed to consuming conventional brands of dairy, give the organic, grass-fed stuff a try. See if you notice any difference in how these different forms of dairy make you feel. It requires paying more attention to your body and mind than you may be accustomed to, but there’s a big payoff to tuning in this way.
Even if you’re not technically allergic to it (meaning, mounting an immune response to it), you may still be “sensitive” to it. Sensitivities to foods are something milder than a true allergy, and are rarely investigated in a scientific way, so it’s difficult to say what’s really going on physiologically. But I’ve definitely seen many cases of dairy sensitivity – people who develop symptoms of irritation when they consume it. It’s especially common in young kids. When I encounter a child with a chronic skin rash or recurrent ear infections, dairy sensitivity is the first thing that comes to mind. Frequently this sensitivity disappears as the child grows up.
One thing the studies and most zealots on either side of the issue don’t tend to account for is human variability. Factors such as your ethnicity and blood type, and even the climate you live in, can influence how you’re affected by certain foods. If your ancestors dined on dairy for centuries, chances are you’re fairly tolerant of it. If your ancestors came from a place – like China – where dairy has not been a prominent part of local cuisine, you may have more difficulty with it. Peter D’Adamo covers this topic to some extent in the blood type diet book, Eat Right 4 Your Type.
Finally, many of the negatives attributed to dairy come down to quality. I’ve had numerous patients tell me they don’t handle conventional dairy products well, but they do just fine with the good stuff.
Cows are made to eat grass – like an all day salad – and this is highly significant. Their four stomachs and the chewing of their cud are specific adaptations to an all-grass diet. It’s what they thrive on. When instead we feed them corn and soybeans, the nutritional quality and flavor of their milk (and meat) are diminished. When we give them hormones in order to extend the period they can be milked after giving birth, this degrades the quality of their milk (this has been proven in court, despite the persistence of that FDA statement that there is no difference between the milk of cows that are and aren’t treated with growth hormone). When we pasteurize their milk in order to kill bacteria that may be present, we damage its enzymes and probably reduce its nutritional value. And when we homogenize it so it won’t separate, we break the fat globules into tiny particles that do not occur naturally, and this seems to detrimentally affect how we utilize the nutrients in it.
These factors considered, although the studies don’t seem to support the blanket negative allegations against it, it still seems worthwhile to consume dairy products in as close to their natural form as we can get them. Therefore, if your body handles milk products well, feel free to consume them. Ignore the zealots. And, when possible, have them fresh, organic, raw or cultured, and warm. I know it’s a bit unusual for many people to have milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese warm, so if that seems unpalatable, consider taking a tip from Ayurveda and mix in a small amount of some warming spice (cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, or turmeric).
What’s your story with dairy? Tell me about it in the comments below. Oh, and as for that idea that “milk is meant to make a cow gain a hundred pounds in a few months,” here’s a simple reason for that: by three weeks old, most calves are consuming about 11 quarts (that’s almost 3 gallons) per day.
Dr. Peter Borten