Is Dairy REALLY Bad For Your Health?

Published on March 27, 2014 by Dr. Colin O'Brien

Dairy-free living hasn’t quite become the craze that gluten-free has, but it’s definitely a hot topic and these two foods tend to go hand-in-hand as problematic and inherently “bad” for our health. Moreover, many health products are derived from dairy and some people cringe at the idea of putting anything in their bodies that have connections with cow’s milk. But is this negativity justified? Let’s take a closer look:

First of all, why all the fuss about avoiding dairy?

Well, for starters, many people can have intolerance to the lactose sugar found in dairy. This has been known for some time and can present with symptoms like bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Yet lactose is less of the focus these days – it’s old news, so to speak. Instead, dairy sensitivity has been reported due to casein content, which is not a sugar but rather a protein. Many people find dairy may aggravate their skin, digestion, immune function or any number of body systems.

A sensitivity to cow’s milk has been associated with the following conditions (note this is a non-inclusive list):

  • reflux/heartburn in infants (1)
  • Crohn’s disease (2, 3)
  • autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (4, 5)
  • atopic conditions like asthma and eczema (6)

So, having said all of this, many people have very good reasons to limit or avoid dairy (especially in children as their immune systems are developing). Let the record state that I agree dairy foods can have negative health implications, but…

Does this mean that dairy products are inherently bad for my health? If a supplement has been derived from dairy and I’m dairy sensitive, should I avoid it?

The simple answer to both questions is “no”. There are still a number of positive benefits from dairy and a large percentage of the population may benefit from its moderate consumption (note the emphasis on moderate). For vegetarians, dairy is a great source of protein. Calcium, among other vitamins and minerals, is a great benefit for dairy consumers. Plus there are lots of immune-boosting nutrients that are found in dairy (see examples below).

When it comes to natural health products, just because it comes from dairy, it doesn’t mean it’s bad for you (there was reason for the title of this blog!). Whole food dairy sources are very different than single nutrients obtained from dairy. Yogurt, for example, also has sugar and fat, which inevitably changes the way your body reacts to its consumption. Writing off dairy derived nutrients is akin to writing off nutrients derived from red meat: many people cannot properly digest red meat, but it still has beneficial components like B12 and heme-iron (perhaps this isn’t a perfect analogy but you get the idea).

Case in point, I have a number of dairy-sensitive patients that can tolerate a high quality whey protein, despite feeling awful when eating cheese, milk or yogurt. I also have patients with skin complaints (i.e. acne) that have improved complexion when avoiding dairy, yet tolerate lactoferrin quite well with no aggravation of skin blemishes. The bottom line is that it is not cut and dry and that dairy is made up of a wide variety of sugars, proteins, fats, hormones and other additives. As a dairy sensitive individual, you may only react to one portion of the entire food and not any of the other nutrients.

As an FYI, here are a few products that have come into contact with dairy or have been derived from dairy:

Lactoferrin

  • Touted for its immune-boosting, anti-microbial, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties. Can actually be used to treat acne.

Whey Protein

  • A complete protein source, necessary for immune function, muscle building and neurotransmitter synthesis (note: does contain casein and lactose).

Milk Basic Protein

  • A unique protein fraction in whey that has been clinically proven to increase bone mineral density by increasing collagen synthesis (thereby, making bones “stickier” for mineral binding of calcium, etc.).

Colostrum

  • The first milk produced by a mother cow after birthing, known for containing a high quantity of immune-boosting factors like immunoglobulins (therefore making it a great supplement for fighting infections).
  • Interestingly, while dairy is often implicated as a factor in causing “leaky gut” (increased intestinal permeability), colostrum has been shown to decrease the occurrence of leaky gut after drug use. (7)

Probiotics*

  • Probiotics have been shown to improve digestive health, skin health, behavior, cognitive function, immune function…you name it.
  • *While probiotics themselves are not from a dairy source, almost all probiotics come into contact with dairy when cultured. I think we can all agree that probiotics are overwhelmingly positive for your health despite this.

In conclusion, I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should eat dairy and everyone should consume dairy-derived supplements. On the contrary, I personally know individuals that are so sensitive that they cannot consume a probiotic that has come into contact with dairy. All I’m saying is that this is an extremely rare case and there may be other factors involved (ie. many non-dairy sensitive people have an initial aggravation of symptoms with probiotics). So, just don’t be so quick to write off all dairy-derived health products as “bad” for you. The benefits will outweigh the risks in most scenarios. Ultimately, do your research and do what is best for you.

Have you experienced any issues consuming dairy? Do you agree or disagree with this article? Leave a comment below!

Image by © 2014 Syda Productions via DollarPhotoClub

References:

  1. Semeniuk J and Kaczmarski M. “Gastroesophageal reflux in children and adolescents. clinical aspects with special respect to food hypersensitivity”. Adv Med Sci 2006; 51:327-35
  2. Koletzko S, Sherman P, Corey M, et al. “Role of infant feeding practices in development of crohn’s disease in childhood”. Br Med J 1989; 298:1617-8
  3. Glassman MS, Newman LJ, Berezin S, et al. “Cow’s milk protein sensitivity during infancy in patients with inflammatory bowel disease”. Am J Gastroenterol 1990; 88:227-32
  4. Lucarelli S et al. Food allergy and infantile autism. Cardi E. Panminerva Med. 1995; 37(3):137-41.
  5. Pelsser, Lidy M et al. Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behaviour of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomised controlled trial. The Lancet 2011; 377(9764):494 – 503
  6. Ranjit Kumar Chandra, Shakuntla Puri, Azza Hamed. Influence of maternal diet during lactation and use of formula feeds on development of atopic eczema in high risk infants. BMJ 1989; 299:228-230
  7. Playford RJ, MacDonald CE, Calnan DP, Floyd DN, Podas T, Johnson W, Wicks AC, Bashir O, Marchbank T. Co-administration of the health food supplement, bovine colostrum, reduces the acute non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug-induced increase in intestinal permeability. Clin Sci (Lond) 2001; 100 (6):627-33.