As members of the Got Milk? generation, we've been raised on the belief that low-fat dairy is one of the healthiest foods that women can eat. However, according to many nutritionists, dairy is actually one of the worst foods that we can consume, causing everything from digestive problems to weak bones to cancer. Milk-a what? We interviewed three nutrition professionals to learn the shocking truth about milk products — it may change everything you believe about your diet.
According to Vivian Goldschmidt, nutritionist and founder of Save Our Bones, the conversation about dairy in human diets starts with an understanding of what cow's milk products are actually designed to do, which is fatten up calves. "Cow’s milk is an excellent food for calves, and each mammalian species has its own 'designer' milk. Drinking milk produced by another species is not in our genetic code." In fact, says Goldschmidt here, the ability to digest dairy past the age of three or so is a genetic mutation. In the cases of most humans, the enzyme lactase (which is needed to break down lactose, the naturally-occuring sugar in milk) stops being produced after infancy. Therefore, it's the ability to digest dairy, rather than the inability, that's the exception to the rule — according to Corinne Goff, R.D., L.D.N.: "Seventy-five percent of the world’s population cannot digest milk."
Far from being nature's perfect food, consuming dairy past infancy can actually have a negative effect on our health. Says Goldschmidt: "Since more than half of adults can’t digest milk, consuming dairy can cause a slew of unpleasant digestive side effects, such as diarrhea, bloating, and cramps." This lack of proper digestion can have serious consequences: "[An inflamed digestive system] can lead to other health problems, potentially affecting the cardiovascular system, the skin, and more, she says."
Even scarier, according to Lauren Slayton, M.S., R.D. of FoodTrainers, the presence of hormones in dairy — a result of cows being shot up with genetically modified hormones rBGH and/or rBST to increase milk production — means that women need to be especially careful when consuming dairy products, as the intake of excess hormones can affect everything from the clarity of our skin to our fertility. Additionally, says Slayton, the hormones in dairy have been linked to various forms of hormone-dependent cancers, such as those of the breasts, prostate and testes. While raw or organic milk and cheese may be less harmful due to minimal processing and absence of added hormones and antibiotics, there really are no true benefits to consuming these milk products, according to Goldschmidt: "Humans have no biological need for dairy after being weaned off of our mothers’ milk."
Also compelling: While we grew up believing that consuming dairy products would help us build strong bones, studies are actually proving that the opposite is true, says Goldschmidt. "Contrary to mainstream belief, the high protein content of dairy products acidify the body’s pH, causing calcium to leach out of the bones to correct the pH imbalance, which weakens them." Goff concurs: "Dairy is a rich source of animal protein, which contributes to a negative calcium balance in your body — and this is what leads to osteoporosis."
And what about yogurt, the so-called "miracle food" that's constantly being pushed on women as the perfect low-fat source of protein and probiotics? According to Slayton, fermented dairy can be easier on your system — but it's only worth consuming if the products are coming from quality sources. "Fermented, organic, local dairy is easier to digest [than conventional dairy], and fermented foods can have positive benefits on your immune system, your weight, and your mood." Goldschmidt agrees: "Yogurt contains immune-boosting probiotics and bio-available vitamins and minerals. Plus, the lactoferrin in the whey found in yogurt boosts the body’s ability to build bone." So, if you are looking to keep some dairy in your diet, a few servings of local, organic yogurt might be the way to go.
If you do choose to avoid dairy entirely, Slayton recommends eating sardines, green vegetables, and beans for their high calcium contents. As a substitute to milk in coffee or cereal, all three nutrition professionals recommended nut milks (Slayton shares her recipe for homemade almond milk here — she suggests making your almond milk to avoid harmful additives like carrageenan).
The bottom line: Goff says it well: "Dairy is not necessary in anyone’s diet, but moderate amounts of dairy products are not going to kill you either — a sensible intake can fit into a healthy diet." Therefore, if you have a healthy, balanced diet and commit to regular exercise, some pizza or yogurt a couple of times a week most likely will not cause you serious harm.
Make sure you listen to your body to find out exactly how sensitive you are to dairy foods, as Slayton notes: "Our ability to digest dairy decreases with age, so what worked at age twenty may not at fifty." The message is simply to know where your food is coming from, and commit to eating whole, nutritious foods as much as possible — no one's perfect, so if cheese or ice cream is your favorite way to treat yourself, by all means, enjoy it in moderation.
Illustrated by Gabriela Alford