The Low Down on Dairy
By Steve Edwards
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Milk: does it really do a body good? This advertising icon is one
that most of us are familiar with. It's also one of the most maligned slogans
in history. A quick headline search reveals a slew of parodies, ranging from
sarcastically simple "milk: it does a body bad" to the more straightforward
"milksucks.com." Whether or not we should consume dairy products is one of the
most common dietary issues in the news and, yet, there still seems to be no
definitive answer. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of dairy, which can
hopefully shed a little light on whether or not you want it as a part of your
I didn't accidentally paste the end of the
article into the second paragraph. I thought it would be best to get this out
of the way right up front. Whether to consume dairy or not, as you might
surmise from the intro, is a volatile issue. Opinions tend to be black or white
and dished with heaping scoops of passion. But passion tends to come from
experience, not science; and a lot of dairy lore seemed to be based on
anecdotal conjecture rather than sound knowledge.
This doesn't mean that there's no
sciencefar from it. A search of The National Library of Medicine shows
25,000 studies that have been done on dairy, apparently none of which can give
us any sort of consensus on its health effects in humans. What all these
studies do show is that dairy products are neither going to kill us, nor help
us live forever. We can consume them and be healthy, but we also don't need to
in order to be healthy. There are millions of examples on both sides, and this
is pretty darn conclusive.
Dairy can be a fine addition to your diet,
but that does not mean that it's right for your diet. You certainly don't need
as much as the dairy council tells us, but it also needn't be vilified more
than any other type of food. Like all foods these days, there are issues,
particularly when it comes to human tampering. But there are also individual
considerations that should be assessed. This article will address these.
The Bottom Line
keeping with the reordered nature of our story, let's look at the most simple
aspect of dairy: its nutrient profile. Of course, this varies per product, but
most are a good source of protein. Some, like yogurt and milk, have
carbohydrates. And all dairy products, in their natural states, have fat and
are great sources of enzymes. Most dairy products, especially those with the
fat removed, would appear to be a fine source of nutrition.
Dairy proteins, casein and whey, have
excellent biological value profiles. There is little reputable science to
dispute this. Dairy fats are generally unhealthy, have high ratios of saturated
fats, and should be limited in one's diet. But some dairy fats, mainly from
certain cheeses, contain enzymes that make them a potentially beneficial part
of a diet, if consumed in moderation. Dairy's carbohydrate source, lactose, has
been the subject of a lot of scrutiny but appears to be fine for most people,
especially in its natural form. Below, we will examine the potential benefits
and pitfalls of dairy consumption.
Too much fat. As stated above, dairy products
contain a lot of fat. Your diet needs to contain around 20 to 30 percent fat,
but very little of this should come from animal sources. The anti-dairy
movement champions a relation to heart disease as a reason not to consume
dairy, but it makes little sense to single out dairy as opposed to, say, meat
or pretty much anything you can buy at your corner 7-Eleven. All dairy products
can be chosen in low- to no-fat options where the fat is simply removed. This
is recommended for anyone who uses dairy as a major source of calories. There
are concerns with this option, also, which will be analyzed below.
Aren't most of us lactose
intolerant? Some people have problems digesting dairy products that
can lead to an unpleasant gastric condition usually referred to as lactose
intolerance. This isn't a completely agreed-upon condition, but it appears to
be the result of pasteurizing our dairy products, which kills the enzymes that
aid the body's digestion process. Milk and yogurt in raw form don't seem to
cause this condition. Regardless, the numbers here are skewed; anti-dairy
pundits will often claim that those suffering from lactose intolerance include
"most" of the population. Other studies seem to peg the number closer to 20
percent. One constant is that those from cultures who have historically
consumed a lot of dairy are not affected as much as those who aren't.
intolerance isn't a dangerous condition but it is uncomfortable. If you do
suffer from it, you can know that millions (if not billions) of people
worldwide are perfectly healthy without dairy. Just be wary of switching your
dairy products to any other one source of nutrition, like soy. Nearly all of
the dairy substitutes are soy based, and too much soy in your diet can also be
problematic (Refer to Denis Faye's article "Magic Bean or Tragic Bean? A Closer
Look at Soy" in Related Articles below.)
Does dairy cause a calcium gain or
loss? This is one of the more interesting controversies. The dairy
industry champions itself as a leading provider of calcium. The anti-dairy
folks turn this on its head to say that it's exactly the opposite. How can this
The pro side is simple: dairy products
contain a lot of calcium and numerous studies show its importance in our diets.
The con side is more complex. Some science suggests that the high protein to
fat ratioalong with an abundance of vitamin Aof nonfat dairy
sources somehow reduces the body's ability to utilize calcium. This isn't
exactly confirmed by the said studies, which actually showed "no decrease in
instances of osteoporosis."
cause osteoporosis? This is a fairly common claim across the Internet
but seems to lead back to a few studies on osteoporosis, many of which used an
increase in the percentages of elderly people with broken hips as proof. In a
nutshell, the studies showed that cultures that drank a lot of milk (i.e., the
USA) had a higher percentage of their elderly population breaking their hips
than those that didn't.
If it seems odd to make this assumption on
one dietary staple, consider that the largest piece of this puzzle is being
left out altogether: exercise. In the last couple of decades, caloric increase
across the U.S. has risen only around 3 percent whereas the level of exercise
we get has dropped a whopping 20 to 25 percent. When you consider that the
primary reason elderly people break their hips in routine falls is due to loss
of muscle that protects the bones, it doesn't take someone from MENSA to
suspect that lack of exercise might be a culprit.
you burn body fat. From the flip side of weird science came some
studies out of the University of Tennessee that got a lot of publicity showing
that those who consumed dairy products lost more body fat than those who
supplemented with other types of calcium. But before you decide that yogurt
should suffice for all of your calcium needs, consider that the study wasn't an
even playing field. The subjects were on a reduced-calorie diet and the dairy
group was given twice the amount of calcium than the supplement group. More
suspicion may arise when you consider that Yoplait funded the study.
Regardless, one conclusion that you could
make is that calcium is both beneficial to your diet and that you can use the
type you get from dairy products to satisfy your needs.
Dairy causes cancer. Milk
was singled out in an older study that suggested that lactose could have a link
to ovarian cancer. Many subsequent studies have been doneand are
currently being doneon dairy and its link with all cancers, with no
conclusive evidence either way. In fact, nearly half the studies in the last 7
years seem to show the opposite, that dairy may help stave off cancer. This in
no way means that the research is invalid. By definition, science works all
angles before coming to conclusions. But it can probably help us relax about
the possibility of a simple and direct link between dairy and cancer.
Dairy is filled with
hormones. This is a well-documented and major issue over how our dairy
cows are raised. The FDA assures us that we only allow our cows to "dope" with
safe drugs. Many dissent. It's a subject that transcends the dairy industry and
is too broad to approach in this article. It's an issue for every food option
that we make. On the subject of dairy, we do have choices. We can purchase
organic options or buy our dairy products from a local farm or someone we
Is raw or pasteurized better? Nearly
all of the pro-pasteurization literature comes from the dairy council or U.S.
regulatory agencies. There is a passel of independent information citing the
virtues of raw dairy products.
The verdict here is theoretical but hard to
dispute. Dairy, in its raw form, is healthier, granted it comes from healthy
cows. In fact, lactose intolerance is claimed to be a nonissue for raw dairy
consumers because the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, is killed
during pasteurization. The flip side is that cows aren't always healthy. In
unhealthy cows, it's common for deadly bacteria, such as E.coli, to show up in
dairy products. Since pasteurization kills bad bacteria as well as good and
preserves much of the nutrient value, it's championed as the better alternative
by the powers-that-be.
Is organic better? Again,
nearly all of the anti-organic literature comes from the dairy council or U.S.
regulatory agencies. This is, of course, because it's their job to ensure us
that all dairy is healthy and safe to begin with. And, again, there are plenty
of studies supporting organic as being preferable.
The verdict can
again come down to some common sense. Organic standards require that cows live
in better conditions and eat better food. We know that when we live better and
eat healthier food, we are healthier. We can suppose that this is also true
about cows. The next assumption would be that eating a healthier organism would
be healthier. If this makes sense, we could conclude that organic is
But wait, there's more. Given that we're all
aware that some think it's okay to lie, we must consider that some companies
may not play by the rules. There are many examples of businesses getting caught
in both lying about their products and attempting to manipulate the regulatory
agencies into changing their criteria. Again, this is beyond this article's
scope, but it's not all that difficult to do your own research. Organic
standards are higher. This should mean that organic products are better.
There are many healthy cultures that
don't use dairy. This isn't exactly true. Yes, there are many healthy
people that don't consume dairy, but dairy (when you include all animals and
not just cows) has been consumed by most cultures forever. The most commonly
cited cultures that don't use dairy are in the east, mainly China, but
historically, much of China was heavily dependent upon dairy. In fact, the
northern regions and Mongolia have used yogurt as a nutritional mainstay for
An analysis of the cultures that currently use little
dairy yields mainly a list of poorer and undernourished cultures. And due to
the socioeconomic climate of these regions, it seems unfair to cite lack of
dairy as a reason for these cultures being malnourished. There are many
examples of healthy educated individuals who are perfectly healthy without
dairy, and many decidedly healthy cultures, such as the Japanese, use much less
dairy than those in Western Europe and the United States.