Dairy is one of the food groups that are highly debated in the Paleo world. Those who are strict Paleo don’t touch it since our caveman ancestors didn’t eat it after their infancy, during which they consumed human milk. However, I don’t believe that this should be the baseline for whether we should eat something or not, as it could still be beneficial for our health.
The problem lies in that many people (more than half of the world’s population) cannot digest lactose or casein. Just like gluten, non-human dairy is relatively new to our evolutionary history, and many of us have not developed the enzymes to fully break it down in our bodies. This means that for some of us, like me (sad face), dairy can cause inflammation, weight gain, congestion, digestive issues, and even acne. The most common positive changes I hear from people who quit dairy for a while are weight loss and clearer skin.
If you have concerns about whether you are lactose or casein intolerant, I suggest you cut it out for 2 weeks, and then see if you notice any changes. You may be surprised to find out how much better you feel and what negative effects eating dairy has had on you. Contrary to popular belief, dairy is not the best source of calcium, if, that is, you can absorb it, and you can still get your daily dose from calcium-rich foods like seaweed, salmon, sardines, leafy greens, and bone broth.
However, if you can digest it fine, good quality, grass-fed dairy can be very healthy and are full of great saturated fats, proteins, and essential fatty acids. Fermented dairy like yogurt, kefir, and hard cheeses are especially great sources of good bacteria that promotes digestion in our guts and provides beneficial nutrients.
If you do decide to consume it, it is important to choose the right kind. Here are some tips to help you get the most benefits from the dairy you eat.
1. Quality matters. Cows fed on grains and confined in a tight space provide milk that is lower in omega-3 fatty acids, and higher in omega-6, which cause inflammation in our bodies. Not only that, these cows are usually fed antibiotics and growth hormones, which are also found in their milk and can have detrimental effects on our health if we drink it continuously. If you can, choose organic, grass-fed, and pasteur-raised dairy.
2. Go for the full fat. It’s only since World War II that people started drinking skim and low-fat milk. Americans only drank full fat milk and cream prior to that time, before childhood diabetes and rapid growth of obesity began. The problem with low-fat milk, or with any low-fat or fat free product for that matter, is that when you take out the fat, it tastes like crap. So in order to make it more palatable, sugar is added in. Also, the saturated fat in natural foods is what fills us up and satiates us. When this is missing, you are left craving more sugar and carbs.
3. Try raw if you can. In some states, raw milk is banned because of its health risks, such as salmonella, e.coli, and listeria. But did you know that produce and poultry are way higher in the number of foodborne illnesses that they cause each year? Raw dairy is actually on the bottom of the list if you look at the numbers. I first tried raw milk when I moved to California, because they are banned in New York. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only is it freakin’ delicious, it didn’t cause the usual digestive distress that happens when I drink pasteurized milk. Also, the health benefits of raw milk far exceed that of homogenized, pasteurized milk, and I encourage you try it if you get a chance.
4. Experiment with different animals. Through trial-and-error, I have learned that my body reacts the strongest to cow-dairy, unless raw as mentioned above. I can tolerate goat and sheep cheese much better, and have goat yogurt from time to time without negative effects. If you can’t handle one type of dairy, you might be able to digest dairy from another animal much better. Milk from different animals vary in fat compositions and protein levels, so it might be worth testing out what works best for your body if you are a dairy lover (specifically, cheese lover) like me.