When it comes to hotly debated topics amongst Paleo followers, dairy always seems to be near the top of the list!
Dairy And The Paleo Diet
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 diet a bad thing, but experience has shown that, as with many Neolithic foods, this is unfortunately often the case.
The general stance on dairy usually falls hard on one of two sides: 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 appear to be somewhat correct. Roughly 75 percent of humans do have trouble digesting dairy, as the enzyme to digest lactose is no longer produced once adulthood is reached. 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 modern rendition of the Paleo diet, or is it best avoided?
The Good News
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. It is insulin promoting due to the fact that its role is to stimulate growth. 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.
Furthermore, there 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.)
The Bad News
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 if it appears 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.
As previously mentioned, dairy is 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.
The risks of consuming commercial dairy options could be considered just as dangerous as consuming genetically engineered grains, soy, and other processed 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.
Cows are subsequently injected with antibiotics to prevent infections from spreading, which occur easily in cramped milking conditions.
Both the rBGH and antibiotics make their way into conventional dairy products and have been implicated as carcinogenic and tumor-promoting.
The Just Plain Ugly
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 not promote 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 – something we all agree is definitely not Paleo!
Note that the vitamin K2 and CLA are mostly in the fat and one can benefit by consuming butter without the risks associated with milk’s lactose and casein.
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. Specifically, it contains lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down the lactose mentioned earlier. Since most humans fail to produce their own lactase, its availability in raw milk helps with 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 contains less lactose than cow’s milk, as well as more vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Camel milk has less lactose, as well as three times the amount of vitamin C as cow’s milk. 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.
Is Dairy Paleo?
Outright rejection of Neolithic foods solely on the basis that caveman did not consume them would eliminate many current food choices and possibly deprive one 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. Plenty of people feel better without it. If, on the other hand, you do tolerate dairy well, it may be something you want to consider.
In my opinion, if dairy is defined as the gallon jugs 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, then it becomes a question of your personal tolerance.
My recommendation would be to always begin your Paleo journey by eliminating all types of dairy to rule out any food sensitivities and create a baseline for experimentation. One may then 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!