**This is a topic that could warrant a long, very detailed discussion with endless intricacies and gray areas but in the attempt to keep it short and simple, this review will remain on very basic level that should still cover enough of the details and minutia to make it informative as a general guide and starting point for nearly everyone.
A food group with a long history that is often the subject of controversy in the health-sphere. Is it a health promoting food or something you should avoid? As always, the answer is, it depends.
The term “dairy” refers to foods created from the milk of a mammal, usually a ruminant such as a cow but also goat, sheep or other similar animal. Eggs are not dairy. The most common forms of dairy are: Milk, Butter, Cheese & Yogurt.
In the simplest terms, dairy is a highly individualized food, meaning it can be ideal for one person and detrimental for another. Almost more than any other food, it is really difficult to make a blanket statement if it is good or bad. That being said, I do feel comfortable making a few general recommendations that can offer a good starting point to explore a personalized dairy experience.
Straight off the bat, one thing is clear: There is no dietary need for dairy past infancy. If you don’t eat or drink dairy products, you are not missing anything. You can be perfectly healthy without dairy. However, many people, myself included, feel dairy products are a nice part of life, can contribute to health and enjoyable. When it comes down to it, each person needs to ask themself if the pros outweigh the cons.
Pros vs. Cons
Good source of nutrients (particularly protein, fat and vitamins), easily accessible, tasty, versatile, and a “whole, unprocessed food” in its raw milk form.
This is pretty straight forward. Dairy is easy to obtain, convenient and provides a number of nutrients. As a whole food, whole milk contains a nice blend of fat, protein and carbohydrate, along with some vitamins and minerals. Butter and cream are great sources of butterfat and vitamins and are a very stable fat and a great source of energy. Cheese offers taste and convenience, packaged in fat and protein, without the sugar. Yogurt can be a nice food and a easily accessible source of probiotic bacteria, particularly Greek styles. Even whey protein shakes, though not ideal for most people, can offer a simple and quick dose of protein. In general, dairy has a lot to offer, particularly from the fats and vitamins.
Raw dairy has even more to offer, as it is unaltered and hasn’t been processed as much as conventional dairy, although discussing pros/cons of raw milk is more complicated. For a much more thorough write up on raw dairy, check out this series of articles.
The potential for milk related allergens, digestive intolerance, hormone/antibiotic residue, animal wellness concerns, and pasteurization and/or homogenization related changes.
This is where things get more complicated. First complaint: we are not the offspring of ruminant animals. This in and of itself is enough for some people. Second: concerns regarding potential allergens and intolerances. The most common is sensitivity and/or intolerance to lactose (milk sugar) and casein (a milk protein). Many people suffer from low level, internal inflammation resulting from these reactions. The resulting health disruption often goes unnoticed or isn’t attributed to dairy. Third: Much of the conventional dairy comes from animals in unhealthy conditions being milked perpetually and often treated with hormones and antibiotics. There is a legitimate concern this ends up in the dairy passed on to the consumer. Fourth: Pasteurization and homogenization alters the composition and nutrients of dairy. Done to sterilize the dairy, heating dairy kills everything, even beneficial things, such as the lactase enzyme. Homogenization makes all components of dairy the same size and alters some of the nutrients as a result. There a few other concerns with dairy but those are the ones most people are worried about.
We can now each ask ourself if the pros outweigh the cons. For each person it will be different. Some will find the pros outweigh the cons, some won’t. Some will be allergic to dairy and have an easy decision. Others will assume there are plenty of benefits because they have been convinced of it over the years so they will consume dairy without even if they don’t find it ideal. Others aren’t even aware there is an issue and never ask the risk/benefit question. To this point, many people aren’t aware of many of the downsides to dairy, since many are very low level irritants. Many people find mucous and skin conditions clear up after abstaining from dairy. Other people find no real adverse affects from consuming dairy in any form and feel better as a result of eating it regularly.
As a general rule, the more concentrated the lactose (milk, fat free in particular) the more likely people will have challenges digesting it. Raw milk, which hasn’t been pasteurized, contains the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose, making it easier for many people to consume without problems. Cheeses contain concentrated casein which can make them problematic for people with sensitivities to that protein. These people often feel “addicted” to cheese, stemming from a body response in dealing with the toxin load to their body. Fat is the only component of dairy that seems to be benign for most people. Even people with lactose and casein sensitivities can often tolerate butter and cream, which are nearly all fat.
Ideally, each person commits to a personal dairy test: Eliminate all dairy for a month, including being conscious of dairy components added as ingredients to other foods (milk and milk powder are common), then reintroduce dairy starting with one version at a time. First butter, then cream, yogurt, cheese and milk. Keep track of how you feel and look during the month with no dairy then be conscious of anything that arises when you reintroduce dairy products. Eczema goes away during that month but comes back a few days after drinking milk again? That will give you insight into how your body likes dairy products. Mood and energy dips a little for a few weeks and then returns with reintroduction of butter? More clues toward your personal dairy prescription.
Basics in hand, let’s review the common types of dairy and break them down a bit, starting from the most ideal for most people, down to the least ideal for many people.
The Dairy Report Card
Preferably from grass fed, pastured cows whenever possible. Organic would be the next best choice with conventional dairy being the third preference. If real, old fashioned, raw dairy is available, it can be the most health promoting of all in all forms.
Butter and Ghee (clarified butter)
Mostly fat and full of fat soluble vitamins, butter is one of my superfoods. Nearly everyone can tolerate butter (particularly ghee because the milk solids have been removed) so it resides at the top of the dairy list as one of my favorite “health foods.” It is very stable to cook with and contains a number of nutrients that are hard to obtain elsewhere. Containing virtually no sugar or protein makes butter ideal for people looking to have low impact on blood sugar.
Also nearly all fat and vitamins with very little casein and lactose, cream is another of the safest forms of dairy for most people. Pasteurization is less of an issue with the dairy products higher in fat, like cream.
Cheese is a convenient and tasty food. Full fat and natural cheeses are ideal, although some people find a problem from the concentrated casein content in cheese. Lacking sugar, cheeses are also often used by people when looking to control carbohydrates or dietary sugar.
One of the only sources of probiotic bacteria in many people’s diet, yogurt can be a nice food for those with no sensitivity to milk. Once again, full fat versions (Greek yogurt) are preferred and the less added to it the better. Yogurt has a reduced amount of lactose the longer it has been cultured, as the bacteria feed off of the lactose. Homemade yogurt from grass fed milk could be considered a health food for many people although this wouldn’t be universal and takes some preparation and practice.
Whole milk is a real food. Lower fat versions are not ideal. Reducing the fat content simply removes the valuable fat and fat soluble vitamins while increasing the percentages of sugar and protein without the balance of the fat content. Many people are unable to digest milk sugar and the casein protein also presents a problem for a decent segment of the population. Raw milk, if from a good source, offers a nice alternative. Milk in general is insuligenic, meaning it can stimulate the release of more insulin, which is not necessarily a good thing for most people, particularly those trying to lose weight.
Protein Shakes (whey and or casein based)
Common and very popular, particularly in the health, exercise, athletic and diet worlds, protein shakes are most commonly derived from dairy. Although I do not recommend protein shakes as a regular part of ones diet, there is likely some benefit from selective, appropriate use of whey protein powders, although this is a major point of discussion and the details deserve another post.
Reduced Fat Dairy
The least desirable for nearly everyone. Removing the fat from the product elevates the percentage of protein and sugar in the food while removing the balancing, nutrient dense fat. Fat soluble vitamins, such as A & D, need fat for transport in the body. Without that carrier, you don’t get them. Additionally, if lactose and casein are the main health offenders in dairy and fat is the most health promoting, why would you want to remove the fat and consume just the other two? Not only does this not make sense for health, it raises the glycemic impact of the dairy, making it even more insuligenic. Not a good thing.
In summary, if you choose to consume dairy products, butter and cream stand tall, clearly at the head of the class for most people. Cheese, yogurt and whole milk would be next, depending upon your individual tolerances, needs, likes and goals. Whey protein is still a bit of an open case with some gray areas. Finally, reduced fat and fat free dairy are likely a waste of time and money for nearly everyone and may even be hazardous to our health.
The Bare 5 Bottom Line on Dairy:
1. Dairy is highly individualized.
2. Eliminate and reintroduce it for best insight.
3. Grass fed dairy is preferred, organic if possible, raw if desired.
4. Less processed with little to nothing added is ideal.
5. Full fat versions are best.
Thanks for reading, have a great dairy free (or butter filled) day!
P.S. A few notes on dairy:
Do not rely on dairy for calcium. It may have a high calcium content (particularly cheese) but it often does not assimilate well so we don’t get very much of it at the end of the line.
People of European heritage (think lighter skin from higher latitudes) typically tolerate dairy products better than African, Asian, and Indian and Hispanic backgrounds.
Grass fed dairy is becoming easier to buy mainstream. I use Kerrygold Irish Butter which I can now find at several places, including Sprouts, Whole Foods, Trader Joes and even some Vons/Pavillions stores.