The health and nutrition industry are full of absolute statements. However, when it comes to health and nutrition, there is no one size fits all and whether something is healthy or harmful, depends on many factors.
Dairy is one of those foods that is either demonised or praised, depending on who you speak to and what angle/bias they are coming from. The truth is, dairy is neither good or bad, it depends on the context in which it is consumed. Let me explain.
The good side of dairy.
People who have high levels of trans-palmitoleic acid, a fatty acid found in milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, in various studies, have shown to have a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Also, high levels of trans-palmitoleate were associated with lower lipid levels and lowered inflammatory markers. Since trans-palmitoleic acid is a fatty acid found in the fat of milk, this supports the idea that full-fat products are beneficial rather than low fat products.
Dairy products are also great sources of nutrients that can complement a healthy diet. It is a great source of fat-soluble vitamins, protein and minerals like calcium.
Dairy has been part of the human diet for quite some time now and in some hunter-gatherer cultures it was the main component of their diets. For example, the Loetschental Swiss and the Masai consumed a majority of their calories from dairy and were practically free from modern, chronic diseases. Dairy was also used in some cultures as a preconception food for couples that were about to have children due to its nutrient density. The adults would drink the milk from cows when the pastures were lush green, ensuring the milk was at its most nutrient dense.
I have heard some people argue that we shouldn’t eat diary because there is no other animal that consumes the milk of another animal. This is true, but does that mean it is bad for you? I mean, I don’t see any other animals farming or cooking their food? Does that mean farming and cooking our food is bad?
Some people have also argued that casein (a protein in dairy) causes cancer. However, whey, another protein found in dairy, has anti-cancer effects that completely cancels out the cancer-promoting effects of casein. We eat food, not nutrients.
When dairy may not be health promoting.
Whether or not diary is good for you depends on the health of your gut and your genes. Individuals with poor gut health such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and tend to have issues with dairy.
If someone has poor gut health, it’s more likely that their immune system will respond to potentially allergenic components in dairy. Our gut bacteria play important immune modulating roles, therefore an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, can cause hypersensitivity of the immune system to harmless proteins in milk.
Also, people with poor gut health, may be more likely to react to milk because the bacteria in their small intestine excessively ferments lactose, causing gas, bloating, reflux, stool issues and cramping. This is why some people tend to tolerate fermented dairy products like Greek yoghurt, as most of the lactose is used up in the fermentation process, which is why the yoghurt has a sour taste.
Lastly, milk is mainly made up of two proteins called whey and casein. The two common forms of casein present in milk are A1 beta-casein and A2 beta-casein, which differ as a result of a genetic mutation in cattle over 5,000 years ago. There is observational, test tube, animal and human evidence to suggest that A1 beta-casein may promote inflammation and be linked to inflammatory disease states due to its ability to form a inflammatory molecule called BCM-7 in the gut, which is then systemically absorbed.
The inflammatory opioid effects of the A1 beta-casein derivative, BCM-7, has been postulated to cause inflammation in the gut, disrupt blood glucose management, exacerbate period issues and also may affect the brain. This has been offered as one potential explanations for the delayed psychomotor development in cow milk formula-fed infants compared to breastfed infants.
Raw vs pasteurised dairy.
Raw dairy products made from milk that has not been heated and pasteurised are more nutrient dense as pasteurisation kills many of the heat sensitive vitamins, nutrients and probiotics in the milk. Raw dairy products are said to potentially be harmful as pasteurisation is done to kill harmful bacteria in the milk, but it turns out that you have a 1 in 6 million chance of being hospitalised from raw diary.
If you’re not sure where you stand with dairy, the best approach is to remove it for 30 days and then reintroduce it and see what happens. Elimination/reintroduction is still the most effective tool for determining sensitivity to a particular food.
But if you tolerate it well, there is no reason as to why you shouldn’t be eating healthy amounts of full-fat dairy.