The Truth About Dairy Consumption & Why Milk Doesn't Do A Body Good

I gave up dairy.  Being a strict vegetarian (yes, that means no fish either) for the past six years, everyone thinks I'm nuts to eliminate dairy too.  But guess what, the more educated on nutrition I became, the stricter I became with my diet and I've never felt better.  Healthy and energized, I learned that even though it's a highly controversial subject, milk doesn't necessarily do a body good.  (Thank God I'm a dark chocolate girl).  Don't believe me?  I spoke with exhale's National Director of Nutrition, Melissa O'Shea to find out the facts. Is it true that drinking cow's milk is not in our genetic code?

It is true that most of us (75%) cannot digest dairy. Lactase (the enzyme needed to breakdown lactose) production begins to decline after infancy. The ability to digest milk is actually a genetic mutation that occurred 10,000 years ago in areas that needed to consume dairy due to other diet deprivations. Sweden and Denmark tend to have a high percentage of people who have this mutation and can tolerate milk and dairy products. Most people cannot tolerate the three servings of dairy that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends, but seem to be ok with small to moderate amounts.

What affects does drinking cow's milk have on a person? Is it harmful?

For some who are intolerant to lactose, cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhea are common side effects. These symptoms may not occur in everyone who is intolerant and it often has to do with the amount of lactose that is consumed. Many people can tolerate one cup of milk (or lactose equivalent) at a time. For those who are intolerant, intake can cause inflammation in the body, which can affect not only our digestive tract, but also our skin and risk for heart disease. Currently, conventional dairy is being pumped with hormones and there are studies that have associated a high intake of dairy with increased risk of ovarian and prostate cancers.

Why have children and women been encouraged to drink milk? Does cow's milk aid in helping our bones?

The main reason why children and women are encouraged to drink milk is because of the proposed benefit to our bones. It is true that Calcium and vitamin D are two nutrients important for bone health and milk is a convenient source of these nutrients, but according to the Harvard School of Public Health, there is actually very little evidence that milk consumption is associated with reduced risk of bone fractures.

What are healthy alternatives to living a dairy free lifestyle? What advice do you have for women who are concerned with calcium? 

You can rely on dark green, leafy vegetables such as kale and collard greens, as well as beans and legumes for calcium intake. There are also plenty of fortified non-dairy sources that contain both calcium and vitamin D, such as almond milk, coconut milk and orange juice. Just check the nutrition facts panel and make sure the brand you buy is in fact fortified. Physical activity is also an important component to bone health and remaining active as we get older is one of the best things you can do for your bone health. If you are dairy free and are still concerned about getting enough calcium in your diet, you can rely on a supplement, but go for one that contains a combination of both calcium and vitamin D, since D is required for calcium absorption. As for whether or not to quit dairy all together, if you can tolerate small amounts and want to include some in your diet, make sure you pick high quality organic varieties and choose products like kefir or yogurt, which offer up a healthy dose of probiotics, and are good for your immune system and digestive tract. Kefir is also 99% lactose free, making it a good option for the lactose intolerant.