Should You Be Avoiding Dairy? What the Science Says

Did you drink milk with lunch as a child? For decades, milk was considered an essential part of a healthy diet. Depending on where you grew up, you may have been encouraged to drink a glass of milk with each meal. But milk has fallen out of favour with many health professionals in recent years.

Do You Really Need Dairy? The Top 3 Myths Busted

Decades of catchy dairy industry slogans like “Got Milk?” have kept dairy at the forefront in many households. But does dairy really live up to the hype?

Myth 1 – Dairy is Needed for Bone Health & Prevents Fractures
False! For years, popular nutritional guidelines have promoted the idea that we need to consume a lot of calcium to build up strong bones during our teenage years in order to protect against fractures late in life. However, science doesn’t necessarily agree.

A long-term study following 96 000 men and women (the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study) indicated that milk intake during the purported bone-building phase did not reduce the risk of hip fractures later in life. In fact, for every glass of milk per day in their teenage years, men had a 9% higher risk of fracturing a hip later in life. (the same risk was not seen in women)

Myth 2 – Low-Fat Dairy Helps Maintain a Healthy Weight
If you think that choosing low-fat dairy products is a good weight control strategy, you may be surprised to find out that research shows full-fat milk, yogurt and cheese to be more helpful in preventing weight gain. That is likely because the full-fat versions are more satisfying and keep you fuller for longer.
Interestingly, drinking skim milk has been positively associated with increased acne over the full fat milk.

Myth 3 – Milk is the Only Good Source of Calcium
It is true that milk contains high levels of calcium. And it’s a fact that our bodies benefit from dietary calcium in a number of ways, such as better heart health and lower blood pressure. However, milk is not the only calcium game in town. In fact, one of the few studies done on non-dairy dietary calcium intake found that plant-based calcium sources significantly reduced blood pressure.

Why Are So Many People Low in Calcium?

What we eat isn’t the only factor for proper calcium intake. We also have to look at what increases the absorption of calcium and what causes us to excrete it. Let’s look at which factors can put you at risk for reduced calcium absorption even if you eat a calcium-rich diet.

Low Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium properly. When blood calcium levels drop, Vitamin D helps increase calcium absorption and decrease calcium loss through the urine. If Vitamin D levels are low, it no longer matters that we eat calcium-rich foods, as they won’t translate to bioavailable calcium that our bodies can use.

High Salt Intake
If your diet is high in salty foods, you could be at risk of low calcium. High sodium levels make the kidneys work harder to flush out the excess sodium and prevent mineral imbalance issues in the blood. Unfortunately, this process flushes out more than just sodium, resulting in a net loss of calcium from our bones.

Too Much Caffeine
Excessive consumption of coffee, tea and caffeinated sodas also has a leaching effect on the body’s calcium levels. Caffeine is a mild diuretic, which encourages calcium loss through the urine. This means your body may excrete calcium before it has a chance to use it – what a waste!

High Alcohol Intake
Alcohol is another culprit of reducing calcium absorption because of its diuretic action. Furthermore, it reduces the activity of liver enzymes that help convert vitamin D to its active form. As we saw above, this means even less calcium will be absorbed.

Gut Health Issues
Much of our body’s calcium is absorbed in the small intestine. If you have digestive concerns such as celiac disease, Leaky Gut Syndrome, SIBO or IBS, you may be absorbing less calcium from your food than you would if your gut was functioning at its best.

Foods That Can Reduce The Absorption of Calcium
Foods High in Oxalic and Phytic Acid bind to calcium and reduce its absorption into the bloodstream. Many of these foods are otherwise very healthy – should you give them up? No, however, a good compromise is to avoid eating these foods in the same meal as calcium-rich foods. For example, research shows that eating spinach and milk together reduces how much calcium is absorbed.

Foods High in Oxalic Acid:
Spinach
Collard greens
Sweet potatoes
Rhubarb
Beans

Foods High in Phytic Acid:
Whole grains
Wheat bran
Beans
Seeds
Nuts

Beyond Calcium, How Does Dairy Affect Health?
Milk is often associated with wholesome eating patterns – but is it really such a natural beverage choice? Let’s look at the more complex side of dairy.

Hormones in Milk May Lead to Cancer
Current research shows possible links between the hormones in dairy and certain cancers. Some evidence points to Estrogen, steroid hormones and growth hormones as the main culprits. Excessive dairy consumption can thus lead to hormonal imbalances causing mood swings, anxiety and a host of unpleasant symptoms.

Reducing Dairy May Improve PCOS Symptoms
In Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) too many male hormones are produced, resulting in weight gain, excessive hair growth and acne. High blood sugar is thought to make this condition worse. Studies show that a low dairy diet can help women with PCOS lose weight, lower insulin levels, and reduce testosterone.

Lactose Intolerance: Dairy is Well Tolerated by Some, but Not by Others
Many people simply can’t tolerate milk. In fact, research shows that the majority of the world’s adult population is lactose intolerant: up to 70%. That means they don’t create enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest the sugar (lactose) found in milk. As a result, lactose goes through the gut without being digested, leading to uncomfortable symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and diarrhoea.

Why is Lactose Intolerance so prevalent?

The Type of Milk Protein Makes a Difference

The dominant type of protein in milk depends on the animal it comes from. Cow’s milk is high in A1 B-casein, while milk from sheep, goats and buffalo contains mainly A2 B-casein. Many people who cannot tolerate cow’s milk find that A2 B-casein dairy products are much more easily digested.

Genetic Differences in Human Populations

We are what our ancestors have eaten. If you have a Northern Eastern European background, for example, you are much less likely to be lactose intolerant than someone with an Asian background. There is evidence that as far back as 500 BC, European babies were given animal milk. Historical genetic research shows that as dairy-loving cultures spread across the world, so did their dairy-tolerant genes.

Loss of Diversity in the Microbiome

Cultures that have been eating dairy for centuries have a diverse gut microbiome well-designed to handle it. But the microbiome is easily affected by dietary changes. With Western junk foods now available worldwide, our microbiomes are nutrient-starved and getting less diverse. Researchers speculate that this increasing lack of diversity in our microbiome contributes to rising rates of lactose intolerance.

Milk is for Babies

Every mammal’s milk is designed for babies of that species. That’s why it’s so full of the perfect proportions of fat, minerals and immune-strengthening compounds for those babies. Humans are the only ones that drink the milk of another species.

Cow’s milk is designed for baby cows. This is part of the reason for high global levels of lactose intolerance: mammals aren’t meant to drink milk (human or otherwise) after the age of five. That’s when abundant lactase enzyme levels naturally decrease, which means we can no longer digest lactose.

What to Try When You Simply Can’t Give up Dairy:What You Need to Know About Supplementing Calcium

If you are a menopausal woman or at risk of osteoarthritis, you may be considering taking a calcium supplement. The two main forms of calcium you will see on the detail panel of your supplement are carbonate and citrate. For most people, calcium carbonate is the best choice as it is more bioavailable and less expensive. In addition, you might have noticed that many Calcium supplements contain Vitamin D. The perfect partner, Vitamin D significantly increases calcium absorption.

However, taking too much supplemental calcium increases the risk of muscle tension, constipation, kidney stones and cardiovascular disease, as well as affecting the absorption of iron and zinc. Sky-high calcium levels can be just as detrimental as low levels, so it is important to work with your healthcare practitioner when supplementing.

Thinking of reducing or giving up dairy? Wondering if you’re lactose intolerant or worried about calcium? Let’s work together to do the right testing to uncover your unique situation. We’ll create a personalized plan including delicious dairy alternatives and the right supplements. Give us a call and let’s get started!

References:

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1014296
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25159495
https://asbmr.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jbmr.279
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1769138
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4524299/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0190962216301311
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28421381
https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4516387/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7302802/

Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner B, Willett WC. A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. Hum Reprod. 2007;22(5):1340-1347. doi:10.1093/humrep/dem019 (full fat dairy reduces acne and improved fertility where low-fat dairy does the opposite)

Deth R, et al. Clinical evaluation of glutathione concentrations after consumption of milk containing different subtypes of β-casein: results from a randomized, cross-over clinical trial.Nutr J. 2016 Sep 29;15(1):82. – type of milk protein casein affects dairy tolerance