Milk is a controversial topic in health circles. But for me, it is not controversial, I was diagnosed in 2009 with an IgG mediated dairy allergy, and so I try and avoid it as much as possible. My problems with dairy began many years ago, I just did not know dairy was the problem.
For almost as long as I can remember, I had trouble with acne, and not just during my teenage years. My acne began when I was about 9 years old. My dear mom tried everything she could think of, over the counter products, masks, doctors. After my mom passed away when I was 10, my dad and grandma took on the task. They tried everything they could think of, there was no treatment too expensive or too far. They offered me everything possible. I saw many more doctors, and tried many more treatments, oral and topical, prescription and over-the-counter. Nothing worked. And I know it hurt them almost as much as it hurt me, because they could see how it affected my self-esteem. But nothing seemed to work.
Then, one day, when I was a sophomore in college, I was home on break and sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table. I was reading a natural health magazine and saw an article by a naturopath about the link between dairy and acne. She cited no scientific research to back up her claim, but I figured it was worth testing out – after all, I did eat and drink a lot of dairy…a whole lot.
I experimented cutting dairy out of my diet, and for about two weeks, I stuck to a very simple and unprocessed diet, to make sure I was not getting any dairy. Within about a week and a half, my acne disappeared, completely. What had persisted for over 10 years, despite the best doctors and medicines, disappeared by changing my diet. But I was not well-educated on how to detect dairy in processed foods. I knew to avoid drinking milk with my cereal and ice cream, but I did not realize how many processed foods often have dairy (and often times by the name of the specific dairy protein, such as ‘whey’), foods like bread, cookies, salad dressing, chips, cake, marinades, etc. So when I returned to eating processed foods, my acne would flair up again occasionally. I also started acknowledging that I had stomach discomfort after almost every meal, something I thought was normal, until I realized my friends on the Irish Dance team could eat dinner around 6 and be at practice, ready for rigorous exercise, around 7pm. A few years later, I met a doctor who thought to test me for milk allergy, and sure enough, I tested positive. And he was the one that taught me how to identify dairy in processed foods. It has made such a huge difference to my quality (and maybe even quantity) of life. I still slip up every now and then, especially when I go to someone’s home for dinner, milk is such a popular ingredient in the American diet and kitchen, that it is hard to be a gracious dinner guest and avoid dairy. But on the whole, I avoid dairy, and feel (and look) so much better.
Recently, I learned about a research study that confirmed the link between milk and acne. For more information, click here.
DAIRY ALLERGY VERSUS LACTOSE INTOLERANCE
Sometimes my friends or family suggest I eat something that is ‘lactose free’ or drink Lactaid instead of milk, but for someone with a milk allergy, the ‘lactose’ is not the problem. Those with a dairy allergy are allergic to one or more of the proteins in milk, this is not the same as lactose intolerance. Those who are lactose intolerance are intolerant of the milk sugar ‘lactose’ and therefore milk does not sit well with them. As a remedy, they can either consume lactose-free milk or take enzyme pills that provide the enzyme necessary to break down lactose (lactase), which their body either does not produce, or does not produce in sufficient quantity. A large portion of the population is lactose intolerant.
In humans, lactase stops being produced when the person is between two and five years old. The undigested sugars end up in the colon, where they begin to ferment, producing gas that can cause cramping, bloating, nausea, flatulence and diarrhea. If you’re American or European it’s hard to realize this, but being able to digest milk as an adult is one weird genetic adaptation.
It’s not normal. Somewhat less than 40% of people in the world retain the ability to digest lactose after childhood. The numbers are often given as close to 0% of Native Americans, 5% of Asians, 25% of African and Caribbean peoples, 50% of Mediterranean peoples and 90% of northern Europeans. Sweden has one of the world’s highest percentages of lactase tolerant people.
Being able to digest milk is so strange that scientists say we shouldn’t really call lactose intolerance a disease, because that presumes it’s abnormal. Instead, they call it lactase persistence, indicating what’s really weird is the ability to continue to drink milk.
I suspect I have both lactose intolerance and a dairy allergy, but at the very least, I have a dairy allergy and more importantly, I actually feel a big difference when I consume dairy, and it is not a pleasant feeling. So I avoid dairy as much as possible. But it can be tough, especially since so many processed foods contain dairy, even staples like whole wheat bread, if purchased from a conventional super market, usually have some form of dairy.
But there are other reasons why some argue that dairy is bad for humans, reasons that have nothing to do with allergies or intolerance. These reasons can become controversial because often times they are cited without research to back them up or suggest their validity. I am not a scientist, nor am I a nutritionist, so I will not weigh in on the debate about dairy. But I can tell you some of what I do know, and I encourage you to evaluate this (and other) information, and come to your own conclusion.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST DAIRY
Some (particularly those who follow a Paleo Diet and many alternative health practitioners), argue that dairy is not healthy. Unfortunately, their arguments are often time unsupported. They argue that dairy is only appropriate for the baby animal whose mother produced that type of milk, and that dairy causes mucus in the human digestive track. But these claims are often times stated, without references to back them up.
However, there is at least one source I have been able to find that does provide references to back up the claims against dairy – an article by Dr. Mark Hyman, a medical doctor and family physician who has dedicated his career to identifying and addressing the root causes of chronic illness through the practice of Functional Medicine. He is currently medical editor at the Huffington Post and on the Medical Advisory Board at The Doctor Oz Show.Dr. Hyman has testified before the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and has consulted with the Surgeon General on diabetes prevention. He has testified before the Senate Working Group on Health Care Reform on Functional Medicine, and participated in the White House Forum on Prevention and Wellness in June 2009. Dr. Hyman was nominated by Senator Tom Harkin for the President’s Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion and Integrative and Public Health, a 25-person group to advise the Administration and the new National Council on Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health.With Drs. Dean Ornish and Michael Roizen, Dr. Hyman crafted and helped to introduce the Take Back Your Health Act of 2009 into the United States Senate, to provide for reimbursement of lifestyle treatment of chronic disease. In other words, he is not merely an extremist who voices his opinion without just cause to hold that opinion. Many may disagree with him on certain points, but he is an educated and well-respected medical doctor.
According to an article by Dr. Hyman, there is a doctor by the name of Walter Willet, M.D., PhD – who is the second-most-cited scientist in all of clinical medicine and the head of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, who claims that the USDA’s food pyramid is “udderly ridiculous” including its recommendation for dairy. According to Dr. Hyman, Dr. Willett has done many studies and reviewed the research on dairy and has concluded there are many reasons to pass up milk, including:
1. Milk doesn’t reduce fractures.(i) Contrary to popular belief, eating dairy products has never been shown to reduce fracture risk. In fact, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, known as the Nurses’ Health Study, dairy may increase risk of fractures by 50 percent. The study can be found here: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium-full-story/
2. Less dairy, better bones. Countries with lowest rates of dairy and calcium consumption (like those in Africa and Asia) have the lowest rates of osteoporosis.
3. Calcium isn’t as bone-protective as we thought.(ii) Studies of calcium supplementation have shown no benefit in reducing fracture risk. Vitamin D appears to be much more important than calcium in preventing fractures.
4. Calcium may raise cancer risk. Research shows that higher intakes of both calcium and dairy products may increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer by 30 to 50 percent.(iii) Plus, dairy consumption increases the body’s level of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) — a known cancer promoter.
5. Calcium has benefits that dairy doesn’t. Calcium supplements, but not dairy products, may reduce the risk of colon cancer.(iv)
6. Not everyone can stomach dairy.(v) About 75 percent of the world’s population is genetically unable to properly digest milk and other dairy products — a problem called lactose intolerance.
Based on such findings, Dr. Willet has come to some important conclusions:
• Everybody needs calcium — but probably not as much as our government’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) and calcium from diet, including greens and beans is better utilized by the body with less risk than calcium supplements.
• Calcium probably doesn’t prevent broken bones. Few people in this country are likely to reduce their fracture risk by getting more calcium.
• Men may not want to take calcium supplements. Supplements of calcium and vitamin D may be reasonable for women.
• Dairy may be unhealthy. Advocating dairy consumption may have negative effects on health.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently asked the UDSA to look into the scientific basis of the claims made in the “milk mustache” ads. Their panel of scientists stated the truth clearly: Milk doesn’t benefit sports performance, there’s no evidence that dairy is good for your bones or prevents osteoporosis — in fact, the animal protein it contains may help cause bone loss, dairy is linked to prostate cancer, it’s full of saturated fat and is linked to heart disease, dairy causes digestive problems for the 75 percent of people with lactose intolerance, and dairy aggravates irritable bowel syndrome.
Dr. Hyman says that “due to these concerns, many have begun to consider raw milk an alternative. But that isn’t really a healthy form of dairy either …Yes, raw, whole, organic milk eliminates concerns like pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and the effects of homogenization and pasteurization — but to Dr. Hyman, these benefits don’t outweigh dairy’s potential risks. He contends that our bodies just weren’t made to digest milk on a regular basis. Instead, most scientists agree that it’s better for us to get calcium, potassium, protein, and fats from other food sources, like whole plant foods — vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and seaweed.
So here is his advice for dealing with dairy.
6 Tips for Dealing with Dairy
• Take your Cow for a Walk. It will do you much more good than drinking milk.
• Don’t rely on dairy for healthy bones. If you want healthy bones, get plenty of exercise and supplement with 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily.
• Get your calcium from food. These include dark green leafy vegetables, sesame tahini, sea vegetables, and sardines or salmon with the bones.
• Try giving up all dairy. That means eliminate milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream for two weeks and see if you feel better. You should notice improvements with yoursinuses, post-nasal drip, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, energy, and weight. Then start eating dairy again and see how you feel. If you feel worse, you should try to give it up for life.
• If you can tolerate dairy, use only raw, organic dairy products. I suggest focusing on fermented products like unsweetened yogurt and kefir, occasionally.
• If you have to feed your child formula from milk, don’t worry. The milk in infant formula is hydrolyzed or broken down and easier to digest (although it can still cause allergies). Once your child is a year old, switch him or her to real food and almond milk.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF DAIRY
I am not a scientist, so I do not feel qualified to authoritatively interpret all the data on the subject, but I do think well-educated consumers can make better choices. So here is some information that I find interesting, if not compelling, in favor of moderate dairy consumption. I will preface it however, by saying that even these examples of healthy cultures that eat dairy have something unique to them that dairy consumption in the US does not have, a naturally produced milk supply. These examples of cultures that are healthy and consume dairy consume a different kind of dairy than the average American consumer, they consume one that is often times raw and unpasteurized, from cows that are grass-fed and not routinely fed antibiotics and hormones. Therefore, I will say this, I think that to the extent dairy consumption can be beneficial for some, it is not all dairy that is beneficial, but rather, raw, unpasteurized, grass-fed, organic milk, produced without the use of hormones or routine antibiotics.
One of my favorite sources for nutrition information is the Weston Price Foundation. They advocate dairy for a healthy human diet, in large part because of research on native populations that are extremely healthy, and do consume dairy. However, even their dairy endorsement is only for raw, unpasteurized, grass-fed, organic dairy that is produced without the use of hormones or routine antibiotics. And their advice, as far as I can tell, does not take into account the large portion of the American population that is lactose intolerant. However, if you are not lactose intolerant, and want to include dairy in your diet, I would suggest reading some of their resources on the health and economic benefits of raw milk.
(i) Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health. 1997 Jun;87(6):992-7.
(ii) Feskanich D, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Feb;77(2):504-11.
(iii) Tseng M, Breslow RA, Graubard BI, Ziegler RG. Dairy, calcium, and vitamin D intakes and prostate cancer risk in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Epidemiologic Follow-up Study cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 May;81(5):1147-54.
(iv) Huncharek M, Muscat J, Kupelnick B. Colorectal cancer risk and dietary intake of calcium, vitamin D, and dairy products: a meta-analysis of 26,335 cases from 60 observational studies. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(1):47-69.
(v) Brannon PM, Carpenter TO, Fernandez JR, Gilsanz V, Gould JB, Hall KE, Hui SL, Lupton JR, Mennella J, Miller NJ, Osganian SK, Sellmeyer DE, Suchy FJ, Wolf MA. NIH Consensus Development Conference Statement: Lactose Intolerance and Health. NIH Consens State Sci Statements. 2010 Feb 24;27(2).
(vi) Bartley J, McGlashan SR. Does milk increase mucus production? Med Hypotheses. 2010 Apr;74(4):732-4.
(vii) Luopajärvi K, Savilahti E, Virtanen SM, Ilonen J, Knip M, Akerblom HK, Vaarala O. Enhanced levels of cow’s milk antibodies in infancy in children who develop type 1 diabetes later in childhood. Pediatr Diabetes. 2008 Oct;9(5):434-41.
(viii) El-Hodhod MA, Younis NT, Zaitoun YA, Daoud SD. Cow’s milk allergy related pediatric constipation: Appropriate time of milk tolerance. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2009 Jun 25.