Dairy is a confusing topic within Paleo communities and one that garners much debate.
Paleolithic man did not drink milk. Animal colonization only began about 9,000 years ago, studies show man did consume milk products back then. Milk may not be Paleolithic, but it is considered primal.
Furthermore, outright rejection of Neolithic foods solely on the basis that Paleolithic man did not consume them would eliminate many current food choices and possibly deprive you of possible evidence-based beneficial health effects of these foods.
Dairy is a highly nutritious (and delicious) food source, and humans have consumed animal milk for millennia. This does not immediately imply it is good for YOU to eat though!
How do you determine if dairy is right for you??
Like many people, the reason you follow a Paleo lifestyle is probably to lose weight or heal a health condition like digestive issues, autoimmune, inflammation, or controlling blood sugar. Unfortunately, eating dairy typically does not help you achieve any of those goals!
In particular, bovine (cow) dairy has been closely linked to digestive and inflammatory issues for many people including sinus problems, joint pain, acne, IBS, bloating and gas.
Whilst dairy (especially in the full-fat, fermented, or raw forms) may be good for a very healthy individual, it’s generally not great for most people with existing health or weight loss issues.
Concerns with Dairy
Proteins & Sugars
Once metabolized, the casein (a protein) in milk from Holstein cows produces a chemical that disrupts digestion, causing achy joints and even leaky gut syndrome in some, among other unpleasantries. Most commercial milk comes from Holsteins. These cows have a seemingly unlimited capacity to produce milk, more than any other type of cow, which is what makes them so popular on the modern dairy farm.
Many older breeds of cows do not have this type of casein. Jersey and Guernsey cows produce a casein called A2 beta casein protein. Despite what its name suggests, the A1 version found in Holstein’s milk is a mutated version, which is why is can cause problems. While non-Holstein milk may be tough to find in the U.S., most of the cows in Asia, Africa and Southern Europe produce the A2 type of casein.
Sourcing milk from Jersey, Asian or African cows may help reduce the issues with casein. Alternately, you can also dry milk from other animals including sheep, goat and camels – the structure of their casein proteins differs even more from A1 Casein.
Lactose is a large sugar molecule found in dairy products. Many health professionals believe that most of the world is lactose intolerant and do not possess the enzyme to effectively break down this sugar.
Another issue with lactose is that it (along with other components of milk) tends to raise blood sugar levels higher expected given that milk has a low glycemic index (GI). This could pose a further problem for you if you have blood sugar issues.
One of the reasons your body may not be able to tolerate milk is because commercial milk is heavily pasteurized. Pasteurization kills nearly all of milks healthy properties, including the enzymes needed to digest it.
Raw milk contains all the vitamins, enzymes and lactobacillus acidophilus our bodies need for healthy digestion. If the raw milk comes from an older breed of cow (i.e. not a Holstein), this may alleviate digestion issues.
If lactose truly is the problem, fermented or cultured milk and yoghurt is the solution. During fermentation lactose is broken down into a more digestible format called lactic acid.
Fermented dairy tastes much better than it sounds! You can ferment your own milk in about 24 hours with kefir grains, which eat the lactose for you.
Inflammation is caused by an immune reaction, that is often not to the milk itself.
One of the biggest concerns with commercial dairy is the presence of artificial hormones. Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST or rBGH) is used to increase milk production. This has been shown to increase udder infections and reproductive problems in dairy cows.
In order to prevent infections from spreading in the cramped milking conditions, cows are injected with antibiotics.
Both the rBGH and antibiotics make their way into conventional dairy products and have been implicated as carcinogenic and tumor-promoting.
Commercial milk is full of antibiotics, among other additives that are not naturally present in healthy, grass-fed cows and pasteurization further exacerbates the problem.
Drinking unpasteurized milk from an older breed of grass-fed cow can alleviate these concerns. You can find your local chapter of the Weston A. Price foundation, who will help you find a source of raw milk (as long as it’s not illegal where you live).
The Paleo Diet promotes eating whole, real foods as close to their natural form as possible. Processed food to be avoided. Milk is a processed food! As previously mentions, commercially produced is pasteurized, sometimes even flash pasteurized, which means the milk is heated up to an extremely high temperature to kill all living bacteria both good and bad. The Paleo Diet does encourage enjoying healthy fats, of which raw milk has plenty.
Conventionally raised dairy cows are generally fed a diet of genetically modified corn and soy whilst confined in a very tight environment. This is sadly similar to conventionally raised beef. Furthermore, the milk is skimmed to reduce the healthy saturated fat and pasteurized rendering some enzymes and beneficial bacteria ineffective.
Grain-fed cows produce milk much higher in omega-6 fatty acids and lower in omega-3 fatty acids, which, in the long-term, will trigger inflammation and may reduce the vibrant health a well-formulated Paleo Diet has to offer.
Grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic cows will produce a milk of a much higher quality. These cows naturally produce milk rich in beneficial fatty acids like omega-3, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and α-linolenic acid. In addition to the healthy fats, the milk is high in vitamin K2. Removing these acids takes dairy from a whole food to a processed food. Processed food is something we all agree is definitely not Paleo!
Note: Vitamin K2 and CLA are mostly in the fat and you are able to benefit by consuming butter or ghee with significantly less risk than what is associated with milk’s lactose and casein.
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Health Benefits Of Dairy
Dairy is the first nourishment a newborn receives and is formulated to promote growth. Mother’s milk is packed with nutrients, saturated fats, beneficial bacteria, essential fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates. The role of milk is to stimulate growth making dairy insulin promoting. In this sense, someone trying to gain weight and NOT having autoimmune, acne or insulin sensitivity related issues could benefit from dairy on weight gain program.
Dairy, when raw, organic, and coming from grass-fed, antibiotic-free cows and other ruminants, is also rich with benefits that one might want to consider
Raw dairy is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
It is also a rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to help fight inflammation and aid in fat loss.
When fermented (in yogurt and kefir), it contains high doses of gut-friendly probiotics.
The high levels of vitamin K2 in dairy (specifically full-fat cheese) have been associated with an all-around reduced risk of cancer.
Dairy has also been shown to:
- Be effective at reducing body fat while maintaining lean mass.
- Reducing markers of inflammation.
- Reduce blood pressure.
There is also no evidence that the saturated fat in dairy foods increases the risk for heart disease. Some dairy foods have a neutral effect; others actually reduce the risk. Dairy foods do not increase cholesterol levels and, in fact, fermented dairy seems to lower them.
As with everything, this is your life and your choice.
It is wise to begin your Paleo journey by eliminating all types of dairy to rule out any food sensitivities and create a baseline for experimentation. It may then be possible to introduce some high-quality dairy, starting with perhaps ghee, kefir, or camel milk, which are easier to digest. If these options work well for you and you feel better for consuming them, move on to raw hard cheeses and on up to raw milk. All options require a little self-experimentation making it is possible to win your own dairy debate.
Try to avoid fooling yourself into thinking you tolerate dairy without doing the elimination test first simply because you are struggling to give up cheese!
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The bottom line is that you must eat what makes you feel good, both physically and emotionally. If you do not feel your best when consuming dairy products, you would probably do better avoiding them. However, if the idea of giving up dairy is preventing you from thriving on a Paleo Diet, do your due diligence and find a source of quality raw dairy from a grass-fed cow. It might be the thing that saves you falling off the Paleo wagon.
Michal Ofer is a wellness and digestion expert and nutrition coach. She is focused on assisting clients to take control of their health and happiness through the sustainable food and lifestyle choices that best support them. Through strengthening the body from the inside out, her clients are able to reach new heights of health, happiness and wellness. Michal obtained her Professional Training and Certificate from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She has a further studied through the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Stanford University and is a Certified 21 Day Sugar Detox Coach. Michal has also received a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a Master Life Coach Certification. For further information and to connect with Michal visit her website at www.michalofer.com