Milk: does it really do a body good? This advertising icon is one that most of us are familiar with. However, there has been a lot of talk lately about whether or not we should consume dairy products and, yet, there still seems to be no definitive answer. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of dairy, which can hopefully shed a little light on whether or not you want it as a part of your diet.
Too much fat. Dairy products contain a lot of fat. Your diet needs to contain around 20 – 30% fat, but very little of this should come from animal sources. The anti-dairy movement relates dairy consumption to heart disease as a reason not to consume dairy, but it makes little sense to single out dairy as opposed to, say, meat or pretty much anything you can buy at your corner 7-Eleven. All dairy products can be chosen in low- to no-fat options where the fat is simply removed. This is recommended for anyone who uses dairy as a major source of calories. There are concerns with this option, also, which will be analyzed below.
Aren’t most of us lactose intolerant? Some people have problems digesting dairy products that can lead to an unpleasant gastric condition usually referred to as lactose intolerance. This isn’t a completely agreed-upon condition, but it appears to be the result of pasteurizing our dairy products, which kills the enzymes that aid the body’s digestion process. Milk and yogurt in raw form don’t seem to cause this condition. Lactose intolerance isn’t a dangerous condition, but it is uncomfortable. If you do suffer from it, you can know that millions (if not billions) of people worldwide are perfectly healthy without dairy. Just be wary of switching your dairy products to any other one source of nutrition, like soy. Nearly all of the dairy substitutes are soy based, and too much soy in your diet can also be problematic.
Does dairy cause a calcium gain or loss? This is one of the more interesting controversies. The dairy industry champions itself as a leading provider of calcium. The anti-dairy folks turn this on its head to say that it’s exactly the opposite. How can this be? The pro side is simple: dairy products contain a lot of calcium and numerous studies show its importance in our diets. The con side is more complex. Some science suggests that the high protein to fat ratio—along with an abundance of vitamin A—of nonfat dairy sources somehow reduces the body’s ability to utilize calcium. This isn’t exactly confirmed by the said studies, which actually showed “no decrease in instances of osteoporosis.”
Does dairy cause osteoporosis? This is a fairly common claim across the Internet but seems to lead back to a few studies on osteoporosis, many of which used an increase in the percentages of elderly people with broken hips as proof. In a nutshell, the studies showed that cultures that drank a lot of milk (i.e., the USA) had a higher percentage of their elderly population breaking their hips than those that didn’t. If it seems odd to make this assumption on one dietary staple, consider that the largest piece of this puzzle is being left out altogether: exercise. In the last couple of decades, caloric increase across the U.S. has risen only around 3% whereas the level of exercise we get has dropped a whopping 20 – 25%. When you consider that the primary reason elderly people break their hips in routine falls is due to loss of muscle that protects the bones, it doesn’t take a genius to suspect that lack of exercise might be a culprit.
Dairy helps you burn body fat. A recent study has shown that those who consumed dairy products lost more body fat than those who supplemented with other types of calcium. But before you decide that yogurt should suffice for all of your calcium needs, consider that the study wasn’t an even playing field. The subjects were on a reduced-calorie diet and the dairy group was given twice the amount of calcium than the supplement group. More suspicion may arise when you consider that Yoplait funded the study. Regardless, one conclusion that you could make is that calcium is both beneficial to your diet and that you can use the type you get from dairy products to satisfy your needs.
Dairy is filled with hormones. This is a well-documented and major issue over how our dairy cows are raised. In Canada, dairy cattle are not permitted to be treated with growth hormones. Consequently, there are no growth hormones in cow’s milk in Canada. That goes for both organic or non-organic products. In the U.S.A., the FDA assures that they only allow our cows to “dope” with safe drugs. Many dissent. It’s a subject that transcends the dairy industry and is too broad to approach in this article. It’s an issue for every food option that we make. On the subject of dairy, we do have choices. We can purchase organic options or buy our dairy products from a local farm or someone we know.
There are many healthy cultures that don’t use dairy. This isn’t exactly true. Yes, there are many healthy people that don’t consume dairy, but dairy (when you include all animals and not just cows) has been consumed by most cultures forever. The most commonly cited cultures that don’t use dairy are in the east, mainly China, but historically, much of China was heavily dependent upon dairy. In fact, the northern regions and Mongolia have used yogurt as a nutritional mainstay for centuries. There are many examples of cultures who are perfectly healthy without dairy, and many cultures that are perfectly healthy with dairy.
What all these studies do show is that dairy products are neither going to kill us, nor help us live forever. We can consume them and be healthy, but we also don’t need to in order to be healthy. There are millions of examples on both sides, and this is pretty darn conclusive.
Dairy can be a fine addition to your diet, but that does not mean that it’s right for your diet. You certainly don’t need as much as the dairy council tells us, but it also needn’t be vilified more than any other type of food. Like all foods these days, there are issues, particularly when it comes to human tampering. But there are also individual considerations that should be assessed.