“Drink your milk so you grow up big and strong.”
I imagine there are not many readers who didn’t hear this phrase at least once or twice as they grew up. The need to consume dairy products is ingrained in all of us.
On this blog I talk a lot about how marketing is responsible for many of the beliefs we have about health and nutrition today. Our obsession with diary for building strong bones and teeth is no exception. The belief that dairy is the only valuable source of calcium and therefore essential for our bones and teeth continues to drive the nutrition messages that are promoted by government and health bodies around the world. The main beneficiary of this is the dairy industry.
Today we are convinced that we should be opting for low-fat, semi-skimmed and even no-fat dairy. But saturated fat is naturally occuring in dairy products, so the process of removing it renders low-fat/no-fat dairy products totally unnatural!
It is no surprise when the advice to choose low-fat dairy comes from government and health bodies (such as the very well-trusted UK National Health Service) we follow it blindly.
“Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are great sources of protein and calcium. To make healthier choices, go for lower-fat milk and dairy foods…. much of the fat in milk and dairy foods is saturated fat. For older children and adults, eating too much fat can contribute to excess energy intakes, leading to becoming overweight.” 1
I am not here to tell you that you should cut all dairy! But as always you must pay attention to the type and quality of your products.
That would be highly hypocritical because my life would be very sad without cheese. Food is to be enjoyed as much as it is to nourish us. Instead I want to provide some facts about the processing of dairy and get away from the rhetoric that low-fat dairy products are an essential part of our diet.
In response to the question is dairy good for your, the answer is very much, “it depends.”
For those who can tolerate it, a bit of cheese is a great way to get some quality saturated fat in your diet.
Dairy can be a very beneficial food; however, that is very much dependent on the particular dairy product, the source and manufacturing process, and the individual consuming the food.
In this article and its follow up I will discuss:
- Why full-fat dairy can be healthy for some; and
- The inflammatory components of dairy products – casein and lactose that make it no so good for others
The usual suspects: the media, industry and government are culpable in promoting these myths about the healthfulness of dairy. It’s time for some unsponsored, balanced advice.
Homogenisation and pastuerisation – processes that matter
Homogenisation – most milk that you buy in the supermarket has been homogenised. This process breaks down the naturally large fat globules in milk into smaller fat globubles. The smaller molecules will then stay suspended in the jug, rather than separating out and floating to the top of the milk. In products with a reduced fat content, some of the fat particles may be skimmed off the top before the milk is homogenised.
Homogenising milk not only alters the size of the fat globules, but it also rearranges the fat and protein molecules in the milk. 2 The process also denatures the whey and casein proteins contained in milk with implications for how these nutrients will behave in the human body.
Research and scientific opinion on whether homogenisation is safe is very mixed. However, in my opinon this is a form of processing that alters the chemical structure of something we want to put into our bodies. My verdict: always choose foods as close to their natural state as possible.
Pastuerisation – a process of heating milk for a short period with the intention of killing of any bacteria. This process was first applied to dairy products in the late 1800s as to cope with the lack of hygeine in urban dairies. 3 However, today we should have clean enough manufacturing centres where this is not necessary.
One of the benefits of consuming dairy is that is supports the diverse colonies of bacteria that live in the human gut microbiome. However, if milk is processed in such a way that all bad bacteria are killed off, you can bet that the good guys will be destroyed as well. Again pastuerisation is a form of processing food, further removing it from its natural state.
Health benefits of consuming FULL FAT, fresh (even raw) dairy
There is a common argument that we have not ‘evolved’ to eat dairy products, because it is a relatively new food in the human diets. Others say that dairy consumption is unnatural because we are the only animals to drink another animal’s milk. However, in my opinion these are not good enough reasons.
Like most things relating to nutrition, and indeed life in general, whether dairy works for you is a completely individual thing. Intolerance and allergies to dairy are very real so we can definitely not make a blanket recommendation that everyone should be eating it. The flaw in many of the evolutionary arguments relating to dairy is that while our evolutionary development can act as a great guide or template for our food choices today, we should not being trying to recreate the Palaeolithic era.
Yes, our bodies and digestive systems are very much the same as they were hundreds of thousands of years ago, but there are a lot of environmental differences that we must take into consideration. If we have access to foods that are a healthy, nutrient dense source of healthy fats then ‘we didn’t use to do it’ is simply not a good enough reason to avoid them. However, as always quality and process matters so very much!
A slice of organic, grass fed, fermented cheese is nothing like a glass of low-fat, homogenised, pasteurised milk!
There are a number of studies that have shown the consumption of dairy actually has some widespread health benefits. Only recently the Guardian published this article, with the conclusion that maybe dairy doesn’t cause strokes!
This study showed that a fatty reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. According to Stephen Guyenet, a leading obesity researcher:
“After adjustment for confounding factors, trans-palmitoleate levels were associated with a smaller waist circumference, higher HDL cholesterol, lower serum triglycerides, lower C-reactive protein, lower fasting insulin and lower calculated insulin resistance. Furthermore, people with the highest trans-palmitoleate levels had 1/3 the risk of developing diabetes over the three years volunteers were followed. 4
In summary, there are many health benefits associated with including a bit of full-fat, fresh and unprocessed dairy in your diet, if you can tolerate it. Note that because the health benefits were brought about by the fatty acids of dairy, consuming anything other than full-fat products won’t bring about the same benefits.