In my previous article, Ditch Your Diet This New Year, I wrote about eating your “native” diet, a diet consisting primarily of quality meat, vegetables, fat, some starch, fruit, nuts and seeds, and a mindfully small amount of sugar – in other words, real food. You’ll notice the absence of quite a few foods most people deem healthy from this list – primarily dairy, legumes and whole grains.
I never recommend whole grains as most products that tout that label are highly processed foods with little resemblance to the actual whole grain – think bread, pasta and crackers. In addition, whole grains pack a big carbohydrate punch that most people don’t have the activity level to support which can contribute to obesity, blood sugar dis-regulation and diabetes. Because much has been written on this topic that I won’t rehash, I’ll leave it to the experts at Whole9 and their Grain Manifesto article.
Dairy and legumes (I’ll tackle legumes in a separate article), on the other hand, are something I call gray area foods, meaning they have healthful properties and nutrients and while they are good for some, they can be very problematic for others.
Let’s talk about the problems that can manifest if you don’t tolerate dairy well.
First of all, about 65% of people over the age of 7 or 8 don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest the lactose, a sugar found in dairy – this means they are lactose intolerant (1). We are born with the ability to both produce lactase and digest lactose because breast milk contains lactose. Between the ages of 2 and 8, quite a number of people lose this ability, resulting in the fermentation of undigested sugars in the intestines, thus producing gas, cramping, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea.
The next component of dairy that causes problems is one of the proteins – casein. Some people suffer from a somewhat rare allergy to casein which results in a potentially life threatening anaphylactic response that requires immediate medical attention (2). Others don’t have the life threatening allergy but are what we call sensitive or intolerant to casein. Signs and symptoms of casein intolerance include: congested sinuses, rashes, eczema, asthma, acne, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), chronic pain, brain fog and fatigue (3) (4) (5).
For example, I suffer from an intolerance in that I get severely congested and break out when I eat dairy. In fact, I gave up 3 different allergy medications – two different OTC allergy pills and one prescription nasal spray – when I ditched the dairy. Now, mind you, I do eat it occasionally, when I think it’s worth suffering the consequences, because life without cheese or ice cream doesn’t cut the mustard for me. The best way to tell if you have a dairy intolerance is to eliminate it for 30 days and then reintroduce it. While in the elimination process, check if any odd symptoms you usually have, go away or have reduced and then return once you’ve reintroduced dairy products. Take note of how you react with different dairy foods.
So does dairy have any benefits? Yes, it does! Organic, whole milk dairy contains a host of nutrients such as: conjugated linoleic acid which can reduce inflammation and atherosclerosis, butyric acid known to aid in metabolic processes and the beloved calcium, just to name a few (6). It also has a more or less equal ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates making it a very balanced source of nutrition (7).
I usually get the question – “If I don’t tolerate dairy, how do I get my calcium?!?!” Fret not. Did you know that many plant foods come loaded with calcium? Yep and some studies show that because of the calcium to magnesium ratio in vegetables like leafy greens, you actually absorb more of the calcium (8). Here is a comparison of skim milk to many vegetables high in calcium so you can see how much calcium you can get from just eating your veggies (9):
- 1 cup skim milk = 306mg
- 1 cup cooked collard greens = 261mg
- 1 cup cooked spinach = 245mg
- 1 cup cooked kale = 172mg
- 1 cup cooked cabbage = 72mg
- 1 cup cooked Brussels sprouts = 57mg
- 1 medium baked sweet potato = 43mg
You might ask now if all dairy is created equal and I’m here to tell you – NOPE! First things first when it comes to dairy – quality matters! Look for dairy products from cows raised on pasture (grass-fed), free from prophylactic antibiotics (meaning given antibiotic just in case they might get sick from the way they’re raised) and free from the growth hormones rBGH and rBST. In order to be certified organic, the dairy farmers must satisfy rules about grazing on grass, hormones and antibiotics so it’s your best bet. Stores like Trader Joe’s and Costco now carry great organic dairy products at very reasonable prices.
This may sound counterintuitive to those fat phobic people out there but you should only eat full-fat dairy not low-fat or non-fat. We need the fat to absorb the nutrients and when we take the fat out, too much dairy sugar is left behind. Did you know that a 12 ounce serving of non-fat milk contains 26 grams of sugar while a Coke contains 39 grams (9)? While the dairy sugar is natural, remember sugar is still sugar and too much is no bueno for anyone. In fact, recent studies show that children who drink full-fat dairy have lower incidences of obesity than those drinking low-fat or non-fat (10). The theory is that the dairy fat is more satiating, leading to a diet lower in calories. Other studies also show lesser incidences of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes (6).
The answer to whether dairy should be incorporated into your “native” diet is – it depends! As you can see, every individual body really is different. What works for you might not work for your neighbor. The only way to tell if dairy works for you is to remove it for 30 days, reintroduce it and then see how you feel.
Have you removed dairy? How did you feel? Have you resolved any chronic health conditions like I did by removing dairy?