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What happens to your body when you cut dairy

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

Reasons to consider not drinking milk

I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream. Or, maybe we’re screaming because of the ice cream? According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), allergy to cow’s milk is the most common food allergy in infants and young children. Approximately 2.5 percent of children younger than three years of age are allergic to milk. Babies who develop a milk allergy generally do so during their first year of life.

Food allergy vs. food intolerance

A food allergy — an overreaction of the immune system to a specific food protein — can trigger an allergic reaction, ranging from mild (rashes, hives, itching, swelling) to severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness) and potentially fatal.

On the other hand, many people may not realize that they have a food intolerance to milk and dairy. Conventional cow’s milk and dairy products (including buttermilk, sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cheese) contain the protein A1 casein, to which many people adversely react with symptoms that manifest as bloating, cramps, gas, diarrhea or constipation.

Most of the world’s population (approximately 75 percent) is "lactose-intolerant"; that is, they lack lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Without lactase, you cannot properly digest milk and dairy products, leading to uncomfortable symptoms.

Be aware, too, that while pasteurization of milk and dairy products may destroy potential pathogens, this process also destroys enzymes, which makes milk sugars, like lactose, difficult to digest.

Other reasons to pass on the milk…

Dr. Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health — who has done extensive research on dairy consumption — found:

High calcium intake through regular consumption of milk and dairy products doesn’t reduce fracture risk, as had been previously assumed. In fact, a 12-year Harvard study of 77,761 female nurses (also known as the Nurses’ Health Study) published in the American Journal of Public Health reported: "… women consuming greater amounts of calcium from dairy foods had modest but significantly increased risks of hip fractures, while no increase in fracture risk was observed for the same levels of calcium from nondairy sources."

Dairy consumption may not improve bone health. Contrary to the popular belief that calcium from dairy is needed for strong bones, countries — like those in Asia and Africa — that consume the lowest rates of calcium and dairy also have the lowest rates of osteoporosis.

Dairy may raise cancer risk. Dairy consumption increases the body’s level of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which regulates the effects of growth hormone (GH) in your body. Elevated IGF-1 levels are linked to increased risk of several cancers, including colon, lung and breast.

Drinking milk exposes you to two growth hormones, including bovine growth hormone (BGH), a naturally occurring hormone in cows that stimulates production of IGF-1 and a synthetic version rBGH used in conventional dairy farming to help stimulate milk production. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed a 10 percent increase in serum IGF-1 levels among men and women, aged 55 to 85 years, who consumed three servings a day of nonfat or 1 percent milk for 12 weeks.

Milk and dairy products also promote excess production of mucus, a telltale effect among those with a milk allergy or sensitivity. You may feel it as a thick, irritating phlegm in your throat, and existing mucus may get thicker and harder to loosen or thin.

Regular consumption of conventional milk and dairy can contribute to:

  • Sinus problems
  • Ear infections
  • Chronic constipation
  • Anemia (in children)
  • Antibiotic resistance, by way of antibiotics typically added to the feed of conventional dairy cows.

Positive effects of cutting dairy

When people with an underlying dairy sensitivity or intolerance eliminate it from their diet, they report: 

  • Clearer skin — from nasty cysts to persistent little red bumps, many people say good-bye to chronic acne once they go dairy-free
  • Reduction or elimination of phlegm issues
  • Disappearance of sinus problems (especially post-nasal drip)
  • Elimination of headaches and migraines
  • Less episodes of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Better digestion overall
  • More energy
  • Weight loss
  • Less inflammation — resulting in relief from arthritis pain, rashes and chronic infections
  • Improved behavior — particularly with conditions such as ADHD and autism

Nutrients: Lost and found

Conventional milk contains calcium (approximately 300 milligrams per 1 cup) and is a source of protein (8 grams per 1 cup) as well as vitamins A, B and D.

However, milk, whether organic or regular, is also a highly processed food, altered through pasteurization to kill potential pathogens but it also kills all the live enzymes, beneficial bacteria and vitamins.

The pasteurization process strips out naturally occurring vitamins, so synthetic ones are added back in later. For example, full-fat milk (whether it’s organic or not) has vitamin D added to it. And reduced fat milk — 2 percent, 1 percent or skim (organic or not) — will have both vitamins A and D added back to it.

If you choose to go dairy-free, you can get your calcium from nondairy sources (which can also provide vitamins A, B or D), including:

  • Green leafy vegetables: kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens and spinach
  • Fish and shellfish, especially sardines (with the bones) and scallops are concentrated sources of calcium
  • Dried beans and legumes, especially white beans (navy beans, great northern and chickpeas), black-eyed peas and pinto beans
  • Sesame seeds (2 tablespoons)
  • Tahini (2 tablespoons)
  • Almond butter (2 tablespoons)
  • Broccoli

Good sources of B vitamins include: meats (beef, beef liver, chicken, turkey), eggs, salmon, haddock, rice, whole grains, nuts, legumes and green leafy vegetables.

Top sources of vitamin A are sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash, as well as dark green leafy greens (kale, collards, mustard greens).

Vitamin D: Getting sufficient sunlight is the most efficient way of getting vitamin D. Top food sources include salmon, sardines and eggs.

More on nutrition

The pros and cons to drinking raw milk
The skinny on saturated fats
Health benefits of the unrecognized vitamin K2

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