If we looked at all the advertising, you’d be hard pressed not to believe that milk isn’t good for you. I mean, it’s got protein and it’s the only source of calcium, right? Most people would be flat out trying to name any other food that contains moderate to high levels of calcium. Basically, we’re lead to believe that if we don’t consume dairy, then we’ll be calcium deficient. So, dairy is a staple in the typical Western diet.

In my opinion, this “truth” about dairy products and milk is incorrect. It’s true, dairy does contain calcium, but the way your body digests dairy products might not give you with the benefits that calcium provides.

Here’s an explanation of the real truth about dairy…plus, what you could be eating instead.

Dairy Is an Acid-Forming Food

Everything we eat effects our body’s pH level. Some foods have an alkalising effect and others are acid forming. It’s best for our blood to sit at a pH of about 7.4, which is slightly alkaline, and it works hard to maintain that level. However, our typical Australian diet includes staple foods that are highly acid forming. Dairy is one of them.

When we drink milk, our body responds to the increased acid load by releasing minerals. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium, which are all necessary for strong bones, enter our circulation to bring us back to a pH homeostasis. These minerals may then be lost, flushed out of our system as waste. For those who live on a typical Australian diet, it has been estimated that the quantity of calcium lost through the urine over time could be as high as almost 480 gm over twenty years…this amounts to almost half the skeletal mass of calcium.1

There’s a lot of interest in alkaline diets these days since so much more food is acid forming. Some advocates suggest an alkaline diet can be helpful in reducing numerous chronic diseases and ailments, including hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, vitamin D deficiency, and low bone density, just to name a few.2

A study of ten different countries, performed by a professor of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health and published in 1986, showed that the consumption of calcium from dairy was the lowest in Hong Kong and Singapore, where they also reported the lowest rate of hip fractures. On the other hand, the United States consumed the most amount of calcium from dairy and ranked the highest incidence of hip fractures.3

Drinking heaps of milk, even though it does contain calcium, may not be so great on our bones after all. We should be looking to other sources to get our daily quota of calcium and not just relying on dairy. Try adding more kale and fish that includes the bones, such as sardines and canned salmon.

Dairy Is Difficult for Many to Digest

It is estimated that as much as 65% of the adult population is lactose intolerant.4 This intolerance means a person has an impaired ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

Lactose is usually broken down by an enzyme called lactase, which is produced by cells in the lining of the small intestine. As infants, we all produce this enzyme to break down and digest our mother’s milk. But after we stop breastfeeding, our body produces less and less of this enzyme, which makes it more and more difficult to digest milk as we get older.

Explaining why most adults have difficulty one way or another in digesting milk sourced from animals. Symptoms of this digestive difficulty can include bloating, gas, stomach pain, and general discomfort.

If you really need to drink milk, opt for almond or coconut “milk.” You’ll have a similar experience to regular dairy milk, but it won’t give you the bloat.

Dairy Is Inflammatory

Inflammation is a necessary part of our body’s natural response to ward off infection and promote healing. When our body signals an increase in inflammation, this also increases blood flow and sends immune cells and key nutrients to the areas that need them the most.

These days though, we’re subjected to everything from pollution, to modern diets, to stress that trigger our body to produce a chronic low-grade inflammatory response. Over time this chronic state of low-grade inflammation has very negative effects on our health.

This leads to our immune system constantly working overtime…it ends up hyper-charged and super-sensitive. So dairy ends up further contributing to inflammation-based symptoms. What people in this inflammatory state typically experience is leaky gut, bloating, gas, lethargy, chronic infection, and allergies. If any of those sound like issues you deal with on a regular basis, experiment with dropping dairy and see what changes.

Other Sources of Calcium and Protein

Dairy is typically promoted as a good source of both protein and calcium, but there are plenty of other foods that are good sources of these items.

  • For protein, try eggs since they have a very high bioavailability and contain all the fat-soluble vitamins.

  • For calcium, go for kale, spinach, figs or almonds.

  • And as I mentioned above, sardines or canned salmon with the bones are good sources of both protein and calcium.

Dairy Products That Aren’t on the No-No List

As much as I’m shredding dairy because of its acidic and inflammatory properties, there are times when dairy is actually a better choice…and in sometimes actually quite good for you. Let’s look at butter, yogurt, and kefir and what makes them a little different.

Why Butter Is Better Than Margarine

Saturated fat has had an unnecessarily bad reputation for the last fifty to eighty years. The food industry created saturated fat alternatives such as margarine and promoted these as “healthier” alternatives to butter. Little did they know that the products they were creating in the lab were far more detrimental to our health than a little bit of animal fat.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils or trans fats such as margarine are the worst fats you can eat because they are highly inflammatory and effect proper nutrient absorption in our bodies. The problem is simple: our bodies don’t know how to process these oils and fats or how to break them down. Because trans fatty acids are chemically altered substances, their shape does not fit the natural shape of the enzymes and membrane structures our bodies are equipped with. So, these foods clog up our cell walls and block essential nutrients from being able to pass through to the cells. These fats also elevate LDL, which is the “bad” cholesterol in the blood and contribute to a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease.5

Avoid vegetable oil like the plague. Shortenings and margarine should also be dodged at all costs. And some dressings, creamers (dairy and non- dairy), and spreads will also contain trans fats.

On the other hand, grass-fed butter (and we do recommend grass-fed) has many benefits. It’s one of the only foods containing butyric acid, which promotes gut health and is generally anti-inflammatory. It’s also a good source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which can be converted easily into energy for your muscles and organs. It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been demonstrated in some studies to combat cancer cells. Finally, it is high in arachidonic acid (ARA), which plays a role in infant growth, brain development, and health. To cut a long story short, butter is a much healthier alternative than margarine or any other spreads created in a lab.

Why Yogurt Is Actually Beneficial

The other dairy product that slips through the radar is unsweetened Greek or natural yogurt. This is because of the fermented live cultures contained in this yogurt. These are what we call probiotics and what they can do for us outweighs the bad effects of processed cow’s milk.

Most of us think that bacteria are bad for us, but there are good bacteria, too. Probiotics are live microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, that are good for our health. We need “good” bacteria in our digestive system so we are equipped to fend off any “bad” bacteria entering our system. Our immune system begins in our gut. So, if we have a healthy gut with lots of “good” bacteria, then we’re more likely to have a strong immune system.

In addition, studies have been shown that a small amount of natural yogurt with live active cultures can lower blood pressure and reduce insulin resistance by improving your body’s response to glucose.4

This doesn’t mean you should buy sugar-laden yogurt full of artificial flavours and ingredients, though. Look for unsweetened yogurt. Some brands will even mention the strains of active bacteria present in their products.

I recommend to eat a small amount of yogurt every day to keep your immune system boosted, help reduce inflammation, and help you reach your quota of minerals and vitamins.

The Truth About Dairy

  1. As a general rule, avoid milk at all costs. Opt for almond milk or coconut milk instead.

  2. If you must have cheese, then choose goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese that’s less processed and less inflammatory. Often these cheeses also contain live active cultures that are good for you.

  3. If you must have something on your toast, ditch the margarine and use good old butter.

  4. Unsweetened natural yogurt that contains the live active cultures is beneficial for you, but in small doses. Try about 50g a serving. This will help boost your immune system and regulate blood sugar. Of course avoiding the sweet, processed yogurts that are full of flavours, chemicals, and colours.

References:
1. Gerry K. Schwalfenberg, “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health?” J Environ Public Health 2012; 2012: 727630. 
2. “Alkaline Diet: The Key to Longevity and Fighting Chronic Disease?” DrAxe.com.
3. Alissa Hamilton, Got Milked?: The Great Dairy Deception and Why You’ll Thrive Without Milk (William Morrow, 2015) p 99.
4. “Lactose Intolerance,” Genetic Home Reference: U.S. National Library of Medicine.
5. “How to Avoid Deadly Trans Fats,” Dr. Bob McCauley.
6. Yuting Ruan, et al. “Effect of Probiotics on Glycemic Control: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized, Controlled Trials,” PLoS One. 2015; 10(7): e0132121.