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Dairy: Pros and Cons

As a species, we’ve consumed dairy (in some form or another) for a long time. Some say milk is full of “bad” fat, unhealthy chemicals, hormones, and impossible-to- digest proteins. That it’ll harm your GI tract, cause acne, make you a mucus-y mess, and increase your cancer risk.

How can you decide what’s right for you?

There’s a lot of research on milk and dairy. All dairy is not created equal. In North America, most of the milk that creates our dairy products comes from cows, although you might see goat and sheep milk products such as cheese and yogurt in your grocery stores. (Goat and sheep milk products are more common elsewhere in the world.) In some places, dairy must be pasteurized - heated to kill dangerous pathogens. In other places (such as France), dairy may be unpasteurized in some forms, such as raw milk cheese.

People vary in their ability to digest and tolerate dairy, whether because of genetics, age, or digestive health and intestinal microbiota. Additionally, folks may choose (or avoid) dairy depending on taste, food preferences, culture and heritage, or choices about consuming animal products.

What’s in dairy?

  • Fatty acids

    • Saturated, monounsaturated, and unsaturated fats

  • Carbohydrates

    • Lactose

    • Galactose

  • Proteins

    • Casein

    • Whey

    • Immunoglobulins

  • Minerals

    • Calcium

    • Magnesium

    • Phosphorus

    • Potassium

  • Fat-soluble vitamins

    • Vitamin A

    • Vitamin D

    • Vitamin K2

    • B vitamins

Cow’s that are grass-fed have significantly more beneficial fatty acids than conventionally fed cows: about two to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and about 62% more omega-3 fatty acids.

How the milk is processed (after it’s collected) will also determine fat content. The fat content in skim milk (virtually zero) is quite different from the fat content in Brie cheese or whole milk.

Proteins: Casein

One of the biggest benefits of dairy is its high protein content. In cow’s milk, about 80% of that protein is from the casein family of molecules. Casein is a slow- digesting, high-quality protein that’s often recommended for gaining muscle and losing fat. It may have antioxidant effects and immune boosting properties; it may reduce triglycerides and high blood pressure.

On the other hand, casein has been associated with lymphoma, thyroid cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and constipation/GI distress.

Proteins: Whey

Whey, the second type of protein in milk, is perhaps the most well-known protein. If you’ve ever had a protein shake, you’ve probably had whey protein powder. While often used as a muscle-building supplement, whey protein can also:

  • Lower triglyceride levels

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Improve the function of our blood vessels

  • Improve insulin function

  • Improve glucose control


Yes, there are hormones in milk. Even in organic milk. Most of the time, to produce milk, a mammal must have been pregnant. Dairy animals are thus in various stages of pregnancy and lactation, which can affect their milk’s hormone content. That sounds scary, especially since higher blood levels of estrogen have been linked to some types of cancer, particularly breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.

Preliminary research suggests that even small increases in blood levels of estrogens and their metabolites may negatively impact development of children during their most sensitive time periods-in the womb and around puberty. In the end, dairy has estrogens in it.

Some conventional (non-organic) dairy farmers also use a hormone called bovine growth hormone (bGH) or somatotropin (bST) to increase milk production. This has caused concern.

How do dairy types differ?

Dairy types differ based on:

  • Their percentage of various macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals, specific fatty acids, etc.)

  • Their type of processing

  • Their bacterial content

  • How digestible they are, and how quickly they digest

  • Their fluid to solid ratio

A. Some folks can tolerate and benefit from milk and choose to drink it. Some can’t and don’t.

B. If you choose to consume milk: as with all foods, it’s probably best to have milk in moderation, noting whether it causes any symptoms and discontinuing it if it bothers you.

Yogurt, Kefir, and other cultured dairy products

Evidence strongly suggests that cultured and fermented dairy products provide many health benefits. Include them in your diet if you want.


Aged and cultured cheeses likely provide some health benefits. Enjoy processed cheese as an occasional treat.


While a little butter is definitely okay, it is certainly not a superfood. Enjoy in small to moderate amounts.

So, how does dairy affect your health?

You can have a strong and healthy skeleton with or without dairy, so long as you ensure adequate intake of important bone nutrients (calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, protein, etc.) and provide a bone-building stimulus, like resistance training.

Conversely, you can have low bone density even with dairy intake, if you eat poorly in general and don’t exercise.

In general, dairy consumption can help bone health. But you can get enough calcium and other bone-friendly nutrients without dairy. There are multiple foods that have more calcium than dairy: kale, salmon, sardines, bok choy, shrimp.

Dairy-related allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances

Many people simply can’t tolerate dairy. If you’re one of them, you might already know. But allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities aren’t always so easy to identify.

Dairy allergy

An allergy is defined by a particular immune response. If you’re having an allergic reaction to dairy, you’re most likely not going to feel it in only your digestive system, but also elsewhere: skin, respiratory system, mouth and throat, etc. Think: itching, swelling, hives, and potentially difficulty breathing. If you have a dairy allergy, you should avoid dairy.

Lactose intolerance

Milk contains simple sugars such as galactose and lactose. Some of us can digest these sugars well, some of us can’t. In order to do so, we need to produce lactase and galactose-1-phosphate, the enzymes that break down lactose and galactose, respectively. This depends on:

  • Our genetic background

  • Our age

  • Our intestinal health

  • The friendly bacteria in the dairy products

If we can’t digest lactose properly, it passes intact into the large intestine. It then ferments, producing gas, bloating, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

Some people who are lactose intolerant can, however:

  • Digest non-cow dairy

  • Digest fermented dairy

  • Digest low-lactose dairy

  • Digest dairy if they take probiotics or lactose supplements.

There are also lactose-free dairy products available.

Some people are sensitive to dairy but lactose isn’t the problem. Instead, they may be intolerant or sensitive to something else in milk, like casein, whey, or other immunoglobulins (types of proteins) in milk. I see this often with people who do lactose free dairy and cant understand while they still feel awful.

When our immune system reacts to some component of milk, we can have digestive symptoms along with other food intolerance symptoms, such as inflammation, skin rashes and acne, irritated respiratory passages, and so forth.

The process for determining dairy sensitivity and intolerance is the same as for lactose intolerances: Keep a detailed food log that tracks your symptoms or try an elimination diet.

Organic versus conventional dairy farming

Organic dairy usually comes from cows who are fed better, as it comes from cows receiving only organic feed and getting at least 120 days of pasture grazing yearly, providing at least 30% of their food during that grazing period.

Keep in mind that organic doesn’t require that cows are only fed grasses and hay. They can still be fed grains and other feed, as long as they are organically produced. Diet strongly affects dairy quality.

The amount of pasture that cows have access to can influence the protein, fat, and carbohydrate content of the milk. The most nutritious dairy comes from healthy animals that spend most of their time outdoors on fresh pasture eating lots of grass supplemented with hay, root veggies, and grains.

Organic dairy will also come from cows that have not been given hormones or antibiotics. The concern with antibiotics is that the drugs some farmers use to prevent infections in cows are also used to treat infections in humans. Antibiotic resistance is a significant problem as it is, so consuming trace amounts of antibiotics in milk might make the problem of resistant bacteria worse.

Raw milk goes through processing to keep it safe for human consumption. It ferments unless refrigerated, and bacteria and viruses can be transmitted from animals to humans in the course of handling.

Pasteurization heats milks in a vat to temperatures that microorganisms cannot tolerate, killing them in the process.

Homogenization crushes milk fat globules so small that they cannot rise to the surface and form a cream layer.

1. What matters most to me?

In making food decisions, you may be focused on longevity, or gaining muscle mass, or clearing up a health issue, or sustainable agriculture, or finding a convenient snack the kids will eat, or any number of other values, goals, and priorities.

2. Your body is unique. Your life is unique.

You may tolerate dairy, or not. You may like it, or not.

3. What fits into my routine and daily life? What do I enjoy?

4. What am I noticing about myself?

5. What’s reasonable?

If you DO choose to eat dairy:

1. Understand the differences between dairy products

a. If you want to keep dairy in your life, get to know the wide range of dairy types available, and experiment. Try products made with goat or sheep milk.

2. Consider choosing fermented / cultured dairy more often

a. Bacterially produced products such as yogurt, kefir, skyr, quark, aged cheeses, and other fermented and cultured dairy products seem to be the healthiest options.

3. Read labels

a. Many types of dairy are highly processed and contain lots of sugar, salt, and other stuff you don’t necessarily want lots of.

You Don’t Need Dairy In Order To Be Healthy

Get the nutrients you need from other sources.

Plan your menus to get enough protein, minerals, and so on from other foods.

My personal choice is to avoid cows milk dairy as it increases my inflammation. I do however maybe once a month enjoy a hard cheddar or parm and I like Siggis Skyr low lactose yogurt in moderation and Green Valley lactose free sour cream.

Keep Moving Forward 😊 Sarah

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