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The Low Down on Dairy

By Steve Edwards
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Drinking MilkMilk: 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 "" 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 diet.


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 science—far 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

YogurtIn 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.

The Issues

Fried ChickenToo 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.

SoybeansLactose 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 be?

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 ratio—along with an abundance of vitamin A—of 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."

ElderDoes dairy 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.

Burn FatDairy helps 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 done—and are currently being done—on 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 know.

Pasteurization ProcessIs 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.

CowThe 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 better.

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 centuries.

Children Carrying MilkAn 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.

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