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Biologically, mammals need the milk of their mother in the first months of their life. This milk has a unique combination of nutrients that are essential to the growing baby. Milk is, by design, specific to the species it feeds. Until they have been weaned, human babies need human breast milk, not cow’s milk, which has a vastly different nutritional profile – in fact it is not recommended to introduce dairy to infants until they are over 12 months old.
It seems unnatural to me that we supplement our diet with the milk of another mammal that is not nutritionally compatible with our needs.
The great dairy scam
Thanks to some rather convincing marketing campaigns by the dairy industry, we’ve all been led to believe that we need to consume dairy several times a day because it is high in calcium which is good for bone health. However, this is a biased view motivated by financial interests, and completely ignores the body of evidence linking dairy consumption with hormonal cancers[ref] and the childhood development of type-1 diabetes[ref].
More controversially, the milk protein casein has been shown in-vitro (a laboratory study) to promote the growth of cancer cells in a dose-response relationship, indicating possible cause-effect. While this hasn’t been proven in humans, the hypothesis – which goes back to the 1970s – hasn’t been disproven either[ref].
Dairy increases Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) in the blood[ref] and it has even been suggested that IGF-1 may be used as a predictor of certain cancers, in the same way that high cholesterol is a predictor of heart disease (Campbell and Campbell, The China Study, 2005).
Even if we choose to ignore these possible links, the high saturated fat content of dairy is of concern. It is recommended that our saturated fat does not exceed 10% of total energy intake[ref].
And then there’s lactose intolerance…
Around 75% of the world population are lactose intolerant meaning they lack enough of the enzyme lactase that is needed to break down the naturally occurring sugar in dairy called lactose. This can cause digestive symptoms including diarrhoea, gas, bloating, stomach cramps and pains, and nausea.
In most people, the lactase encoding gene gets turned off at about age five[ref]. This is a natural occurrence – lactose intolerance isn’t an illness or disorder, it’s actually quite normal. In most Northern Europeans, however, the lactase encoding gene stays active, as you can see from the map below.
Calcium and bone health
Calcium is an important factor for optimal bone health, but dairy is not the only source we can get calcium from in our diet. Many whole plant foods contain sufficient calcium but without the hormones, antibiotics and other chemical contaminants that come in the package along with dairy products.
Besides calcium intake, other key elements for maintaining healthy bones and preventing osteoporosis are:
- Preventing calcium loss by limiting consumption of salt, sugar and sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks, and alcohol, as well as avoiding antacids and minimising cortisol release by managing our stress levels.
- Performing weight-bearing exercises which include resistance and weight training, walking, yoga, and resistance band exercises.
- Eating a well-balanced diet that provides the range of nutrients with sufficient protein and essential fatty acids (with supplementation of any that are lacking, such as vitamin B12).
Plant-based sources of calcium
On a dairy-free or plant-based diet, the best sources of calcium are:
- Calcium-set tofu
- Plant-based milk and yoghurt alternatives
- Calcium-fortified orange juice
- Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals
- Calcium-fortified bread
- Leafy green vegetables like spring greens, kale, watercress, collard greens and pak choi
Fortification levels vary between products, so please check labels.
Spinach and swiss chard are sources of calcium, however, they also contain harmless compounds called oxalates that reduce calcium absorption. There’s no need to avoid these high-oxalate leafy greens completely, I recommend just consuming them at a different time of day to your calcium sources.
Dried figs, baked beans, seeds (especially sesame) and almonds contain calcium as well, but they also contain phytates that interfere with calcium absorption so shouldn’t be relied upon as your main sources. Vitamin C can help reduce the negative effect of phytates, emphasizing the importance of a varied diet rich in fruit and veg.
If you want to understand more about so-called ‘anti-nutrients’ I’ve written a detailed post about them here.
Dairy – good or bad? My conclusion:
While I normally try to maintain moderate views towards the inclusion and exclusion of specific foods in the diet, favouring overall dietary pattern over individual components, dairy is the exception to this rule, and I do not believe it has a place in a healthy diet.