Before I answer this loaded question; how old are you? I mean this on so many levels! Yes, age has something to do with whether or not you should or should not consume dairy products. It also has an effect on how you’ll view my answer. Growing up I was forced (I hated milk) to drink 1 glass of milk a day to “create and keep bones strong and healthy”. Today I do not “force” my children to drink milk. In fact in my refrigerator you will find: almond milk, coconut milk, organic 1 or 2% cow’s milk. I have a range of dairy and alternatives so that choices can be made.
50 years ago milk was considered liquid gold; it could heal everything!! Now it’s getting a bad rap from hearsay associations: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chemicals and more. So, I just implied milk’s bad rap has not been earned…. No I am NOT saying it’s all good, just that we have to consider sources and reasoning. If you’re interested in the science here’s an article that tries to sum up a large number of studies relating to milk and its health effects; good and bad. Overall studies have determined that in some cases milk can be good for health; but it is mostly neutral. Interestingly fermented dairy products such as natural cheeses and yogurt have beneficial effects.
There are several things to consider when we ask the question if milk should be consumed.
Age & Lactose Intolerance
I mentioned this earlier. Age is important for several reasons. At some point every human will become lactose intolerant. Yep that’s right! Lactase the enzyme that digests lactose is only produced by the body for so long; normally childhood. This is because wild mammals only consume mother’s milk. Past a particular age mammals no longer consume it, so the body does not need to digest it, thus why expend energy producing something that will not be of use.
There is no standard age. We all lose this ability to digest diary at different times; also the symptoms are varied. Many people are lactose intolerant and don’t know it! Of course if you enjoy dairy and have digestive issues chances are good that it’s a lactose problem.
A mutation on chromosome 2 has allowed particular individuals the ability to continue to produce lactase into adulthood. This mutation seems to have originated in European countries that have consumed milk products for thousands of years (Italy and Greece in particular).
Even though the body may not naturally produce the enzymes to digest it other things help us do just that. Fermented foods and healthy gut flora will pick up the slack and digest the lactose in small doses.
“I was told I am lactose intolerant but sometimes I can eat milk and cheese without symptoms…why”?
Ah yes the build-up! Lactase is produced by villi in the small intestine in very low levels that decline with age. We are born with a surplus stored in the intestines to ensure newborns are able to digest mothers milk until solid foods can be introduced. This low level production means that if you do not consume lactose containing foods for a few days to a few weeks the body has a chance to stockpile the lactase; thus you are now able to digest a particular amount. Some people choose to do a rotating diet; where no dairy is consumed for several days then it is for a day or two. A sample schedule that works for many is 3:1 (no dairy to dairy). Find your ratio by keeping a detailed food journal, remembering that the foods you eat now will affect you in 1-4 hours.
The production of lactase can also be affected by illness and diseases (such as celiac) that affect the villi of the small intestines. Once aware and the digestive issue is taken care of some people are able to once more consume dairy in moderation without ill effect as the body heals.
The Environmental Debate
There is a HUGE quality difference and environmental impact between milks! If you choose to consume dairy, organic is the way to go. While it is quite a bit more pricey, organic milk is not chalked full of chemicals like non-organic. Plus the animals are treated much better. Have you ever been to a commercial dairy farm? Or a humane, organic dairy farm? There is a huge difference!
Greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of freshwater sources, the loss of wetlands and forests are all reasons why we need to support sustainable practices in dairy farming. The world wildlife federation is working hard with humane dairy farmers to create a sustainability plan for the ecological health of our planet.
Of largest concern with commercial dairy products is the amount of bovine growth hormones, insulin-like growth factor-1 and estrogens that are present; these are not found in organic milk products. When animals consume or are injected with these additives they are also dispersed into the environment through animal waste and spread through our water systems. They affect not only the animal and the people who consume the animal product but also all other surrounding wildlife. These additives are also the reason milk is being linked to things like ovarian cancer and heart disease.
I’m not an environmentalist but I am concerned about my health.
Fair enough! Sifting through hundreds of research papers it can be quite daunting to figure out which papers are unbiased; as for the most part the people seeking answers have something to gain in one way or another. Some facts we know for sure:
- Calcium from dairy consumption does not decrease the likelihood of bone fracture at any stage of life.
- Calcium from dairy consumption does not improve bone density over non-consumption.
- Dairy, when consumed in small amounts, can contribute to a healthy lifestyle and nutritional balance.
- Organic dairy consumption does not increase the chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Commercial dairy products are a source of non-human hormones and other chemicals that can contribute to poor health.
Do the research, listen to your body and consume in moderation. The choice of why you choose to consume or not consume should come from a place of understanding not from “shoulds” placed on you by others. Understand the difference between wants, needs and likes. We do not “need” dairy though many of us like it but not all of us should have it. When we understand that all dietary needs can be met with other foods, dairy really becomes a question of want and sustainability. Choose wisely my friends!
Have a question you want answered? Comment below or send me an email!
Worried about getting enough calcium? Check out this article “Calcium: What’s Best for Your Bones and Health?“
Read more on if Humans Need Milk on the Conversation
Want to know more about the genetic mutation that allows dairy consumption? Check this out!