9 reasons why people are following a dairy-free diet

If you aren’t avoiding dairy like the plague, you probably know someone who does. If you don’t, you may have heard that it’s best to choose the full fat versions over the fat free or low fat. And what about those hormones? Should you choose organic? A dairy alternative?

What’s what? Why are they avoiding it? And should you? Let’s start with two of the biggest, most glaring reasons why someone would want to avoid dairy:

1. Lactose intolerance. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 65% of adults in the U.S. suffer from this – ya know, that bloated, uncomfortable gassy feeling that sends you to the bathroom after you’ve drinking a glass of milk or just eaten a bowl of ice cream?. It’s not an allergy, but just simply the body’s inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, because it lacks the necessary enzyme, lactase, to break it down. It’s actually rare before the age of two. Milk is a big no no here, but often this includes cheese, cottage cheese, ice cream, and yogurt in large quantities. Those who have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, or Diverticulosis will more than likely also have lactose intolerance. Many lactose-free options have been developed over the years such as Lactaid milk and my personal favorite, Fair Life ultra filtered high protein milk which now has available options to include DHA omega-3 fatty acids.

2. Milk allergy: this is more than just an intolerance to the lactose enzyme. Understand that an allergy is very different in that it is defined as a damaging immune response by the body to a substance. There is no tolerating even a yogurt or lactose free option if they want to avoid hives, anaphylaxis, or whatever it is that their body does in response to milk protein.

If you don’t fall into the above two categories, you may want to explore some of the other reasons with me to find out why people have sworn off dairy before you decide if you are joining the bandwagon or not:

1. Dairy is an acne-trigger: TRUE. Some research does, in fact show that high intakes of dairy are linked to moderate to severe acne in teenagers and young women due to the insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) found in milk. The IGF-1 is the primary mediator for the growth hormone and is present in pregnant milk-producing cows. I believe this hormone and others is to blame for why many people are so nervous about consuming cow’s milk and have made the switch to one of the many alternatives available on the market today. Read on.

2. It contains harmful hormones: FALSE. As with with above, the word hormone gets people nervous and thus, there has been lots of public concern over the synthetic hormone, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), that leaks (in miniscule amounts) into our dairy products from pregnant cows. What exactly is it and why is it used? Simply put, it helps the cows produce more milk, i.e. increases efficiency and productivity for their ahem, job. In fact, it’s been studied extensively in it’s twenty years in use and in this most recent review of those many studies, has been concluded totally safe. You have likely seen organic rbST-free milk and yogurt options available in your local grocery store and assumed they were better. From what I have researched, these are in response to market demand, not necessarily safety concerns. If I find out any differently, I will tell you. Promise. If you are still concerned, you have those available to choose from and certainly, if you are acne prone, go for them.

3. Dairy has been linked to certain types of cancer: FALSE except for possibly prostate, which remains inconclusive. In a 2015 analysis of 22 prospective cohort studies (1,566,940 participants), they concluded dairy was associated with a decrease in breast cancer incidence. And again, a study published last month (June 2017), they indicated after analyzing the results of 13 different studies (493,415 participants and 7453 cases) that increased calcium intake coming from diet and supplements was associated with a decreased risk of ovarian cancer. In another review, published at the end of last year, they concluded that cow’s milk is indeed associated with a reduced risk of colorectal, bladder, and gastric cancer as well but neutral for ovarian, pancreatic, and lung. With that many participants and cases, they make a strong argument. The jury remains out for prostate as there has been evidence that dairy raises the risk of prostate cancer, particularly because of the presence of the IGF-1 hormone. Stay clear if you’re a male and have a strong family history for now….in my opinion. It’ cancer, after all.

4. It raises diabetes risk: FALSE. In a 2016 analysis that included 22 cohort studies comprising of 579,832 individuals and 43,118 Type 2 diabetes cases, total dairy consumption, particularly from low-fat yogurt was associated with a reduced risk. Although another study found no difference using full fat yogurt, suggesting the benefits came from the fact that yogurt is rich in probiotics and the fat content is not as important. Lots of human subjects here, that’s what I like to see in results.

  • 5. It causes inflammation: TRUE, maybe. Looking at 78 studies, it really was a toss-up. This review concluded that dairy products, especially fermented ones, like yogurt, are anti-inflammatory. However, for people who have a known dairy allergy, it is definitely pro-inflammatory. Makes sense, that’s kinda what an allergic response is. As far as what it was that caused the dairy to be inflammatory, they did find more of an association with the dairy products highest in saturated fat.

6. It’s fattening and raises risk of heart disease: FALSE. In the same review, they discussed how in actuality, full fat dairy products raise HDL levels (a good thing). Although whole milk dairy products do tend to increase LDL cholesterol as well, understand that there are two types – small particle and large particle. The small, dense particle size are the ones that are more susceptible to oxidation and artery wall build-up, whereas the large are not. Dairy products have more of the large particles. That’s good. A recent meta-analysis of thirteen studies published in December of last year concluded plainly that :

Higher dairy fat exposure is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

7. It was never meant for humans, only baby calves. Personally, I find this to be a weak argument. One could argue that the only milk meant for humans is breast milk. However, many of us, myself included, enjoy soy milk, almond milk, and many of the other non-dairy novelties on a regular basis. The NHANES pubished in 2010 reported that indeed, children aged 2-4 and 5-10 did have higher BMIs when drinking higher quantities of milk (higher BMI was not necessarily equivalent to obesity). However, these results were used for the 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans to encourage milk consumption among children since a higher BMI (not necessarily obese) for a child is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it is well known that calcium and vitamin D intake are linked to bone health and that milk is an excellent source of these vital nutrients. We also know that bone mass is developed during childhood and adolescence.

One might argue that calcium and vitamin D are also available from the many dairy alternatives such as almond, rice, soy, and coconut milk, and often in higher quantities. In this study, however, they found that our bodies absorb about 25% less of the calcium most brands of soy milk add to their product compared to cow’s milk. In other words, you need to drink about 12 ounces of soy milk to get the same amount of calcium you would get from an 8 ounce glass of cow’s milk. Another review pointed out that we simply don’t know the amount our bodies can absorb from all of the nutrient-fortified plant-based milk options to say whether or not it’s the same as drinking cow’s milk. Either way, no one can deny our children are consuming energy dense, but not necessarily nutrient dense diets and that’s a problem. Cow’s milk is the only product I know of that is consistently high in protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D while low in food additives including added sugars that is widely offered to children in their critical growth years.

Hear me out. If you read my blogs, I understand that some of you read holistic health sites as do I. And much of what I’ve said in this post goes against what you’ve probably read or heard. But I do not believe in living in fear, I believe in what it is evidence when it comes to this stuff. I dig as much as my time allows to avoid any potential bias and present the facts to you. If you have any personal experiences that differ and you need to remain committed to a dairy free diet, there are acceptable options to get your calcium from, including some you may haven’t even thought of yet like kale, broccoli, and canned salmon. If you need probiotics and extra supplementation, I have recommendations that I fully trust and use myself that I would feel confident in sharing with you. Feel free me to contact me if you’d like to discuss it more.

P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free support group here. We have an upcoming fitness challenge that’s going to be lots of fun!

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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN

4 thoughts on “9 reasons why people are following a dairy-free diet

  1. Great post Jillian. So glad you cleared up the hormone issue – this one bugs me so much. And I really appreciate your attention to the research (and linking to it as well)!

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