In the strict Paleo sense, dairy of any form was not consumed in the Palaeolithic Era, other than human milk in infancy. This fact does not necessarily make including dairy in your Paleo diet a bad thing, but experience has shown that, as with many Neolithic foods, this can unfortunately often be the case.
There are generally 2 distinct sides to the dairy debate: the first claiming that humans never truly evolved to consume dairy and are therefore not fit to digest it, and the second, which argues how humans have been consuming animal milk for thousands of years without ill effects.
Both sides are correct - somewhat. Roughly 75 percent of humans do have trouble digesting dairy, as the enzyme to digest lactose is no longer produced in adulthood. On the other hand, some of the healthiest populations around the world seem to benefit from their daily consumption of goat, cow, sheep, and camel milk.
Is dairy a food you could consider including into your interpretation of the Paleo diet, or is it best avoided?
Benefits of Dairy
Dairy is the first nourishment a newborn receives and is formulated to promote growth. Mother’s milk is packed with nutrients, saturated fats, beneficial bacteria, essential fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates. The role of milk is to stimulate growth making dairy insulin promoting. In this sense, someone trying to gain weight and NOT having autoimmune, acne or insulin sensitivity related issues could benefit from dairy on weight gain program.
Dairy, when raw, organic, and coming from grass-fed, antibiotic-free cows and other ruminants, is also rich with benefits that one might want to consider
Raw dairy is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
It is also a rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to help fight inflammation and aid in fat loss.
When fermented (in yogurt and kefir), it contains high doses of gut-friendly probiotics.
The high levels of vitamin K2 in dairy (specifically full-fat cheese) have been associated with an all-around reduced risk of cancer.
Dairy has also been shown to:
- Be effective at reducing body fat while maintaining lean mass.
- Reducing markers of inflammation.
- Reduce blood pressure.
There is also no evidence that the saturated fat in dairy foods increases the risk for heart disease. Some dairy foods have a neutral effect; others actually reduce the risk. Dairy foods do not increase cholesterol levels and, in fact, fermented dairy seems to lower them.
(The evidence is clear that substituting refined carbohydrates for fat increases the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome.)
Concerns with Dairy
Proteins and Sugars
Milk and other dairy products contain an assortment of sugars and proteins that can be problematic for many people.
Lactose, the sugar found in dairy, is not well tolerated by most people. Even symptoms appear seemingly unnoticeable, removing lactose from the diet can make a difference. The pancreas produces lactase, the digestive enzyme needed to digest lactose, up until the age of two to cover the period where humans are supposed to be consuming milk. A lack of this enzyme can result in nausea, flatulence, bloating, and other side effects when dairy is consumed.
Humans are the only mammals who drink the milk of other mammals. Humans are the only creatures who do many things so this in itself is not necessarily a valid argument. That being said, milk consumption often translates to intolerance or an allergic reaction to one of milk’s proteins, casein. The type of casein found in goat or sheep’s milk, the A2 form instead of A1, seems to cause fewer issues. Certain breeds of cows also produce A2 casein, but those are not bred very much in North America.
Dairy is also insulin promoting and can exacerbate problems related to weight and insulin control. Dairy is a growth food and can result in undesirable symptoms like acne and skin issues.
Hard cheeses, yogurt and kefir that have been fermented have little to no lactose content and are a better alternative for the lactose intolerant.
Choosing well-sourced dairy options is just as important and relevant and choosing sources for your meats, fats and plant foods.
Hormones and Antibiotics
One of the biggest concerns with commercial dairy is the presence of artificial hormones. Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST or rBGH) is used to increase milk production. This has been shown to increase udder infections and reproductive problems in dairy cows.
In order to prevent infections from spreading in the cramped milking conditions, cows are injected with antibiotics.
Both the rBGH and antibiotics make their way into conventional dairy products and have been implicated as carcinogenic and tumor-promoting.
Conventionally raised dairy cows are generally fed a diet of genetically modified corn and soy whilst confined in a very tight environment. This is sadly similar to conventionally raised beef. Furthermore, the milk is skimmed to reduce the healthy saturated fat and pasteurized rendering some enzymes and beneficial bacteria ineffective.
Grain-fed cows produce milk much higher in omega-6 fatty acids and lower in omega-3 fatty acids, which, in the long-term, will trigger inflammation and may reduce the vibrant health a well-formulated Paleo diet has to offer.
Grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic cows will produce a milk of a much higher quality. These cows naturally produce milk rich in beneficial fatty acids like omega-3, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and α-linolenic acid. In addition to the healthy fats, the milk is high in vitamin K2. Removing these acids takes dairy from a whole food to a processed food. Processed food is something we all agree is definitely not allowed in a Paleo diet!
Note: Vitamin K2 and CLA are mostly in the fat and you are able to benefit by consuming butter or ghee with significantly less risk than what is associated with milk’s lactose and casein.
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If you choose to consume dairy, aim for organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, full fat and fermented (yogurt, kefir, cheese).
Going a step further, source raw dairy direct from the farmer, which will retain all the original properties of the milk. Unprocessed, raw milk is a whole food with live enzymes and nutrients. Raw milk contains lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down the milk sugar lactose. Since adults are unable to produce their own lactase, its availability in raw milk supports digestion.
It is possible to access raw, grass-fed dairy products but consuming and/or selling raw milk in some states is still frowned upon or even illegal. Look into visiting local small farms, as many offer raw, grass-fed dairy products. They will also most likely be happy to share their practices with you, which is a great way to know exactly how your milk is getting from animal to table.
Goat, Camel and Sheep’s Milk
Goat camel, and sheep’s milk products can still provide the benefits of dairy with less of the reactive sugars and proteins found in cow’s milk.
Goat’s milk can be a good alternative to cow’s milk. The form of casein in goat’s milk (A2 casein) is not inflammatory, unlike the casein prevalent in most cow’s milk (A1 casein) that creates gut issues, allergies, eczema, and acne. Goat’s milk is also easier to digest so it doesn’t cause stomach discomfort for most. It also has high levels of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which boost metabolism and brain function, and higher levels of vitamin A, which is good for your skin.
Sheep’s milk is also similar in composition to goat’s milk, but offers higher levels of calcium and phosphorus.
Even though many milk-intolerant individuals report being able to tolerate raw goat, sheep, and camel milk, make sure to carefully test for tolerance, as reactions can still occur.
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Is Dairy Paleo?
Outright rejection of Neolithic foods solely on the basis that Paleolithic man did not consume them would eliminate many current food choices and possibly deprive you of possible evidence-based beneficial health effects of certain food choices.
Dairy is a gray area. It is not universally well tolerated, and not right for everyone. There are many people who feel better without it. If, on the other hand, you do tolerate dairy well, it may be something you want to consider.
Personally, I feel if dairy is defined as the gallon jugs of milk in the supermarket that are laden with artificial hormones and antibiotics, then dairy can be firmly labeled “not Paleo.” When it comes to organic, raw, grass-fed dairy free from any additives and pharmaceuticals, including it in your lifestyle becomes a question of your personal tolerance.
I generally recommend beginning your Paleo journey by eliminating all types of dairy to rule out any food sensitivities and create a baseline for experimentation. It may then be possible to introduce some high-quality dairy, starting with perhaps ghee, kefir, or camel milk, which are easier to digest. If these options work well for you and you feel better for consuming them, move on to raw hard cheeses and on up to raw milk. All options require a little self-experimentation making it is possible to win your own dairy debate.
Do what works for you. If that means no dairy at all, there are plenty of other options. If that means dairy is okay, enjoy your cheese!