In this post, I will point out some of the reasons why dairy can be a healthful food and why I believe those who forbid dairy on health-related grounds are misguided in their attempts to achieve perfect health. I will also share with you how I’ve overcome lactose intolerance while incorporating dairy into my diet.
Loren Cordain’s original Paleo Diet strictly forbade the use of dairy products. Some of his reasons included: dairy is associated with acne, the insulinogenic response of dairy, increased acid load on the body, increased mucus production, lactose intolerance, difficulty digesting casein protein, and the fact that dairy is a recent food to the human diet.
But are the claims mentioned above true, and if so should we stop eating dairy? Some Paleo enthusiasts such as Nell Stephenson believe that we should strive to follow a True Paleo Diet, but I find this to be beside the point. Even Loren Cordain himself told me during an interview that the point of the Paleo diet is to mimic the foods that were found during the Paleolithic era; not to actually find the exact foods available during that time.
When I first decided to follow the Paleo Diet, I totally gave up dairy. I was attempting to rid myself of the persistent IBS that I had dealt with since I was a kid. Following a strict Paleo Diet helped me get rid of IBS, but I began to wonder if I could add back in some of those delicious foods such as butter, ghee, sour cream, cheese, yogurt, and even full-fat milk.
One of the biggest reasons Loren Cordain forbids dairy is because it has a net acid load on the body. When you ingest dairy, the story goes, your body needs to neutralize the acidity of dairy by taking calcium from your bones in order to make your body slightly alkaline again.
According to Loren Cordain, we should strive for an alkaline diet, because he believes that most hunter-gathers keep their bodies slightly alkaline. But as Chris Kresser points out, many hunter-gathers do not have alkaline diets, but rather acid-producing diets. If Cordain’s alkaline diet theory were correct, then we should also avoid other acid-producing foods such as coffee, tea, meat, fish, and eggs. Yet over and over again studies find coffee which is acidic, to be benign and even health-promoting.
Overall, I find Cordain’s arguments against dairy to be too focused on biochemical pathways of harm, rather than real-world results. For example, the Masai of Kenya eat a diet almost exclusively made up of dairy, blood, and meat, yet they have very good health. Weston A. Price also studied many primitive cultures throughout the world and found that many of the cultures with the healthiest teeth consumed dairy, and often revered butter from grass-fed cows as a sacred part of their diet.
Another commonsense problem I have with the acid/alkaline argument is this: how is it that an infant can survive on dairy alone for the first few months or years of life? If Cordain’s arguments about alkaline/acid are correct then an infant should be constantly leaching calcium from its bones to neutralize the incoming breast milk. Yet this is the exact opposite of what is happening. The first few months of life is when kids are growing most rapidly.
Cordain also argues that dairy is a nutrition lightweight when it comes to vitamin content. This is true, but dairy includes one crucial nutrient that can sometimes be lacking in Paleo diets: calcium. There are a few other sources of bio-available calcium such as cruciferous vegetables, and bone broth, but unless you take the time to make bone broth or eat several servings of cruciferous vegetables a day, you may be falling short of your calcium requirements.
If our ancestors didn’t eat much dairy, why do we have calcium requirements in the first place? Our dairy requirements probably stem from the fact that as our common primate ancestors moved from a mostly plant-based diet to one that included easily digestible cooked meat, our guts shrank to accommodate our new diet. Rather than having to eat copious amounts of plants to get our calcium, we simply ate it from the marrow and bones of the animals we caught. So, unless you are including bones and bone marrow in your diet, you may want to supplement or include dairy in your diet as a way to get your calcium.
I hope that by now I’ve made a coherent argument for including calcium-rich foods in your diet, and perhaps that might be dairy, but here are some other good reasons you may want to include dairy in your diet:
- It makes your vegetables taste better when covered in butter or cheese.
- It allows you to lower the glycemic index of any food by adding some dairy fat to it. Top your potato with sour cream to lower its glycemic index
- Grass-fed butter, ghee, and aged cheese are great ways to get vitamin K2 in your diet
- Yogurt and Kefir are great ways to get probiotics
- It’s a great way to include healthy saturated fat in your diet
- Dairy is a convenient snack food: Full-fat yogurt and aged cheese make great snacks in a pinch
Overcoming Lactose Intolerance
I had been lactose intolerant for as long as I can remember. After drinking milk, ice cream, or other milk products, I’d get gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
When I decided to start including dairy back in my diet, I wondered how my gut would tolerate the lactose. There is some evidence that if you could inoculate your gut with healthy bacteria, the bacteria would help breakdown lactose for you.
I gave it a try, starting by adding in aged cheese. This has no or little lactose and wasn’t a problem. Next, I added butter and ghee. My next choice was to add in Lifeway’s Grass-fed Kefir. The label claims that it is 99% lactose free. This is because it includes healthy bacteria that breakdown the lactose for you. My thinking was that if I could inoculate my gut with these healthy bacteria, maybe they would take up permanent residence and allow me eat whatever kind of dairy foods I wanted. To my surprise it actually worked!
I now included full-fat Kefir on a daily basis. The last dairy food I tested was organic full-fat milk. This used to give me terrible gas, and bloating, and diarrhea, but now gives me no problems at all.
I feel that we should not unnecessarily restrict the foods we eat. Why exclude a food that is delicious and doesn’t cause you harm just because our ancestors didn’t eat it? By including a variety of food in your diet, you make your diet robust and free from deficiencies. If dairy doesn’t agree with you, try including some easily tolerated forms such as butter, Kefir, yogurt, or aged cheese. While it’s true that we don’t need dairy in our diet, it can be a convenient way to get healthy fats, improve your gut flora, and meet your calcium requirements.