Whether you should eat dairy is a controversial topic. A simple Internet search will yield articles upon articles citing studies and expert–and non-expert–opinion supporting each side of the claim. Eating dairy can be bad for you, but it can also be good for you. The purpose of this article is to list reasons why you might want to remove dairy from your diet and see if it’s the right diet strategy for you.
Opinions regarding dairy are all over the spectrum. The USDA and the Food Guide Pyramid push for dairy consumption, but this advice is biased thanks to a big influential dairy lobby. On the other hand, many functional medicine health practitioners advocate removing dairy at all costs. And some groups suggest that we consume raw or fermented dairy but not cow’s milk.
Clinical research results are on both sides as well.
And the blogshere is full of articles that stem from emotions and subscribing to one school of thought without giving much attention to the fact that nutrition is very individual. Many articles create fear and the advice looks like ‘I removed dairy and cured all my health issues so you should remove dairy too.‘
Some of the advice is based on epidemiological studies. These types of studies can’t show causation (meaning that A causes B). For example, countries with the lowest dairy intake have the lowest incidence of osteoporosis and vice versa. Does this mean giving up dairy will prevent osteoporosis? Not necessarily. Would a cup of yogurt on regular basis cause osteoporosis? Not necessarily either. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation and there might be some room for an occasional ice-cream treat.
Not all dairy products are equal. They have different macronutrient content (fat vs. protein vs carbs). Some are fermented and some aren’t. They have different vitamin and mineral content. Some are conventionally farmed and others come from grass-fed cows. When evaluating a study on dairy, we must consider all these differences.
I’m a food lover and don’t agree with scaring people away from food.
Avoid dairy if your body feels better without it. If, after experimenting, you find that it doesn’t bother you, then you can enjoy 1-2 servings of healthy dairy options. I use this approach with my patients and clients who come to me with the symptoms I mention below. Sometimes we combine removing dairy with food sensitivity testing.
My only agenda is to help my patients figure out what is best for them individually.
Health Benefits of Dairy
There are documented health benefits to dairy. It’s a good source of protein, calcium, and phosphorus. While calcium is not the only nutrient your bones need and too much calcium can have negative effect including prostate cancer, your body still needs this mineral, probably not as much as the government recommends. Yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses have healthy probiotic bacteria. Aged cheese, especially Gouda, has vitamin K2 which is necessary for healthy bones and arteries. Full fat dairy from from grass-fed cows has omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another healthy fatty acid. And there are health benefits to using raw whey protein.
Inflammation, Immune Reactions and Dairy
On the other hand, dairy can cause the symptoms I list below as a result of inflammatory and immune system reactions.
A true dairy allergy, where someone has an immediate and severe reaction, is not common. Infants can develop allergy to dairy but most grow out of it. In this case, a breastfeeding mom will have to remove dairy from her diet or use a special infant formula.
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However, a sensitivity to dairy is common. It often results in subtle, chronic, and low grade symptoms. I tell my patients it’s like waking up one day and wondering how long you’ve been suffering, that the pain has been a part of you for so long that you can’t tell when it all started. I use a special test to check for food sensitivities to dairy and other foods and you can read about it more here.
Cancer and Dairy
The link between dairy and cancer doesn’t get simpler. There are studies that link dairy and calcium to prostate cancer. Other studies showed a protective effect of some types of dairy against colorectal cancer. And studies on breast and ovarian cancers showed both increased and reduced risk. Some dairy proteins can stimulate the production of the antioxidant glutathione and I talk about it in my post about whey protein.
Cancer is a complicated disease. There are different types of cancer and different types and origins of dairy products. The link isn’t direct or simple. If you have prostate cancer or a family history of prostate cancer, it’s probably better to avoid dairy. If you choose to eat dairy, choose dairy made from grass-fed cows that aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics.
Symptoms of Dairy Intolerance and Sensitivity
If you have any of the following symptoms, consider removing dairy temporarily for 3-4 weeks.
1. Congestion and nasal issues
Dairy can increase mucus secretions in the nose and sinuses, leading to sinus pain and runny nose. It can also lead to post nasal drip, congestion, and ear infections. Removing dairy has helped many of my patients get rid of their congestion complaints.
All dairy, including milk, cheese, and yogurt can cause constipation. While there are many other causes to constipation, such as magnesium deficiency, too much fiber, not enough fiber, hypothyroidism, etc, it’s worth removing dairy from your diet temporarily to see if it resolves the bowel issue.
3. Gas, bloating, diarrhea.
Dairy can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea in two different ways.
First, you might not be able to tolerate lactose, the sugar in milk and yogurt. To break down this sugar, which is made of a glucose and a galactose molecules, your body needs the digestive enzyme lactase. As infants, we all had enough of this enzyme to digest breast (or formula) milk. As we grow up, some of us may lose the ability to produce this enzyme and thus digest this milk sugar. It’s estimated that 75% of the world population is lactose intolerant. It’s more common in people of South American, African American, and Asian descent. Hard cheeses like cheddar and Swiss don’t have lactose, and that explains why some people can eat cheese without problems but not milk or yogurt.
However, inability to tolerate lactose may indicate a more complex issue. The lining of the digestive tract that produces lactase can get damaged due to a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). It’s a condition where bacterial count exceeds the normal healthy limit in the small intestine, causing gas, bloating, diarrhea, and cramps. If this is the case, a complete approach to eradicate bacteria from the small intestine and heal the gut is warranted. Simply eliminating milk from your diet is like putting a band-aid on the symptom without addressing the root cause of the problem.
Second, dairy can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea due to immune reactions. The immune system is a pretty complicated one. Some people have food sensitivities to the proteins in dairy, and in that case, all dairy, including cheese can be a problem.
Gas, bloating, diarrhea, and even nausea after dairy consumption can be a sign of another type of infection. If you have been consuming dairy without problems and suddenly develop an intolerance, ask your doctor to check for Giardiasis, an infection of the parasite Giardia lamblia. Some of the ways you can get infected is by drinking contaminated water or eating raw produce that has been washed with contaminated water.
4. Acne, eczema, and other skin issues.
Dairy can cause acne due to increased production of the hormones insulin and Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). If you have eczema, rashes, dry patches, rosacea, pimples, or other skin issues, consider removing dairy to see if your symptoms resolve.
5. Joint and muscle pain.
Aches and pains in the joints and muscles can be related to inflammatory and immune reactions to dairy. While removing dairy can help with joint and muscle pain, I find that a full food sensitivity protocol in which other reactive foods are removed is a better strategy if you have this symptom.
As you see, it’s not always as simple as a blank statement that dairy is bad for you!
Do You Need to Remove Dairy Forever?
If you don’t have any of these symptoms, you don’t need to completely eliminate all dairy. A better strategy is to choose healthier dairy options and limit to to 1-2 servings a day.
If you have these symptoms and they disappear or improve after eliminating dairy from your diet for 3-4 weeks, a long-term dairy-free diet may be best for you. If your symptoms don’t improve, it doesn’t mean that dairy is ok. Rather, it might be that you have sensitivities to other foods in your diet as well.
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While you can do some experimenting on your own, working with a health professional is recommended when following an elimination diet. It’s also important to ensure you’re not missing on any nutrients should you need to remove dairy long term. You can read about working with me here.