Beginning in childhood, most of us were taught that dairy was good for us. We drank milk daily and freely snacked on cheese sticks and yogurt so we’d have strong bones and teeth. The USDA Food Pyramid recommended 2-3 servings of dairy daily throughout the 80’s and 90’s, which means we were encouraged to have some form of dairy at nearly every meal. After all, these foods are rich in calcium and protein; therefore, they must be critical for good health, right?
The discussion of dairy can become complex quickly. Yes, dairy can be a healthful food for some people, but it’s not healthful for everyone. In fact, it’s one of the top three most common food sensitivities, along with gluten and nuts. Negative reactions to it can range widely, including acne, eczema, rashes, asthma or other breathing problems, a persistent cough, seasonal allergies, headaches, digestive distress (stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas), and more. Dr. Walter Willett, MD, PhD and chair of nutrition at Harvard, estimates that 75% of the world’s population is genetically unable to properly digest dairy products. That’s a staggering statistic! In addition to those of us who are sensitive to dairy there are also lots of folks who have a full-blown allergy and can’t ingest it at all without having a dramatic, life-threatening reaction (often involving anaphylaxis).
While it’s becoming more widely known that dairy may have some pitfalls, the revelation that a food group long touted as healthy could be at the root of someone’s health concerns can still feel confusing at first if you, too, were taught that dairy was unequivocally good for you. Dairy is a prime example of how every individual walking this planet is unique and why we simply can’t make blanket statements about how certain foods are “good” or “bad.” As the saying goes, “One person’s food is another person’s poison.”
Dairy can be troublesome for a few reasons. Some people don’t have an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose (milk sugar) present in dairy (lactose intolerance). Other people react to casein, the main protein present in milk. Other people yet notice they don’t do well with the antibiotics, pesticide residues, and effects of homogenization and pasteurization found in conventionally-raised dairy but seem to tolerate organic, pasture-raised products better. And lastly, there are numerous exceptions and nuances within the big category of “dairy.” For example: Some people can handle yogurt, which is fermented and contains beneficial bacteria for our gut ecosysem, but can’t eat cheese. Other people can enjoy hard cheeses like Parmesan and Peccorino Romano, which have enzymes present that help our body digest that food, but can’t touch softer cheeses like cheddar or Swiss without feeling rotten. Some individuals can sauté things in butter and feel fine, but they can’t drink a glass of milk without getting sick.
Additionally, cow dairy is different from goat or sheep dairy. Many people who can’t handle cow dairy do just fine with goat or sheep products. One shouldn’t assume that all of these foods will produce a similar reaction. Yes, it can all feel a bit confusing and muddy.
If it seems that your body tolerates dairy and you decide to continue consuming it, please seek out quality sources. Your body deserves the best! Check out a farmers market or neighborhood coop and find out who’s offering quality dairy in your area. In Minnesota, we have a couple favorite sources, small farmers who take great pride and exceptional care of their animals, products, and land. They don’t give their animals antibiotics unless absolutely necessary (and then that milk is discarded until free of the antibiotic residue), and their animals enjoy roaming and eating outside in an environment natural to them:
Both of these farms produces 100% grass-fed dairy, which means their products are more nutrient-rich than conventional dairy. Specifically, they will be richer in vitamin D and omega 3 essential fatty acids.
If it doesn’t look like anybody in your area is producing pastured dairy yet, Organic Valley is a nationwide company with a good reputation for providing quality products.
Foods are just foods. They are not inherently good or bad, and we’re not going to learn whether or not our body likes a certain food by reading an article about it. If you’re feeling confused about whether to eat dairy, the only surefire way to learn whether a certain food is healthful to our unique body is to take a break from it, experiment with it by reintroducing it, and then listen – and respect – our body’s messages after we eat that food. If you’ve had a nagging, persistent health concern that feels mysterious and seems to evade a firm diagnosis, a food sensitivity is often the root. Dairy can’t be labeled a bad food, but it does lead the pack of potential suspects.