It seems to be more and more common to hear that someone has a dairy allergy, lactose intolerance or has simply chosen to cut dairy out of their diet. Why is this?
While milk has traditionally been a mainstay of the British diet (with the UK consuming as much as 40% of the EU’s dairy products), there has been a growing awareness of some of the potential health problems associated with a high dairy intake, including allergy and intolerance. As a result, many people are now choosing to go dairy-free.
Allergy and Intolerance:
A dairy allergy involves the body going into shock (or having an anaphylactic reaction) after ingesting dairy and is the response of the immune system to the proteins found in dairy products – casein and whey are the two main components. Casein is the curd that forms when milk is left to sour, while the watery part that is left after the curd is removed is the whey.
In contrast to a true dairy allergy (where there is an immune system response whenever exposed to cow’s milk proteins), people with lactose intolerance can’t tolerate the sugar in milk (called lactose), because they don’t have the corresponding digestive enzyme, lactase, to cope with lactose sugar.
Milk allergy or intolerance is very common, amongst both children and adults. Our bodies actually produce an antibody against milk, which certainly suggests it isn’t an ideal food. These facts alone would seem to indicate that the body has not evolved to cope with high dairy intake and, therefore, it should not form a large part of the diet.
For example, up to 70% of adults lose the ability to digest lactose (dairy sugar) once they’ve been weaned. In fact, most mammals lose the ability to digest lactose once they are old enough to find their own source of nourishment away from their mother.
In other words, we were never meant to continue consuming milk and dairy products beyond infancy. After weaning, or the transition from being breast-fed to consuming other types of food, the ability to produce lactase naturally diminishes as it is no longer needed.
The symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, stomach pain, wind and diarrhoea, while an allergy to dairy produce usually results in a blocked nose, excessive mucous production, respiratory complaints (such as asthma) and gastrointestinal problems.
These are inflammatory reactions produced by the body when it doesn’t like what you are eating. Such reactions are most likely to occur in people who consume large quantities of dairy on a regular basis.
What about babies?
A common misconception is that a breastfeeding mother needs to drink milk to make milk – this, of course, is not the case. The widespread move away from breastfeeding led to the substitution of human milk with cow’s milk. The trouble with this, however, is that cow’s milk is designed for calves! It is very different from human milk in a number of respects, including its protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and essential fatty acid content. In fact, early feeding of babies on cow’s milk is now known to increase the likelihood of developing a dairy allergy (which affects 1 in 10 babies). Common symptoms include diarrhoea, persistent colic, eczema, vomiting, asthma, sleeplessness, catarrh and urticaria.
What about calcium?
When people hear the phrase “going dairy-free”, many immediately make the jump to calcium deficiency. The truth is, despite what has been drummed into us for years, milk is not a very good source of minerals.
Manganese, chromium, selenium and magnesium are all found in higher quantities in plant-based sources (fruit and vegetables). Yes, dairy is high in calcium, but the lack of sufficient magnesium is key. Magnesium works alongside calcium, for proper absorption and utilisation by the body. The ideal calcium to magnesium ratio is 2:1 – you need twice as much calcium as magnesium. Milk’s ratio is 10:1, while cheese has a ratio of 28:1. Dairy is also an ‘acidic’ food (see below) and our body will remove calcium from the bones to buffer this acidity, leading to weak bones and osteoporosis.
What does this mean in practice? Relying on dairy products for calcium is likely to lead to a magnesium deficiency and imbalance. Countries with the lowest rates of dairy and calcium consumption (like those in Africa and Asia) have the lowest rates of osteoporosis!
A diet rich in leafy green vegetables, seeds and nuts are a far better source of these two minerals (and many others), in line with our needs and in balanced proportions. Yet more evidence that milk is intended for young calves; not adult humans.
Acidity and health conditions:
The consumption of dairy products is strongly linked to a number of health conditions, ranging from cardiovascular disease and digestive disorders (such as coeliac disease and Crohn’s), to arthritis, diabetes and asthma. There are a number of potential reasons for this, some of which are considered below.
For healthy blood and the efficient delivery of balanced nutrients to the cells of the body, the pH should be neutral or slightly alkaline. It is not a coincidence that sick people tend to be in the acidic range. Diet has a significant effect on the body’s acidity, through the consumption of either acid- or alkali-forming foods (ie foods that, when digested, produce an end-product that is either alkaline or acid). Dairy is at the top of the acid-forming list, along with meat and sugar. A high level of alkali-forming foods (such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds) are required to neutralise any harmful acids caused by such acid-forming foods.
Poor calcium to magnesium ratio:
Most people assume that dairy is linked to heart disease because of the high fat content. In fact, more pertinent could be the poor calcium to magnesium ratio already mentioned above. More than any mineral, magnesium helps to protect against heart disease.
For the purposes of producing modern milk, cows are now selectively reared to produce milk during pregnancy. This milk is therefore particularly rich in oestrogen, as well as Insulin Growth Factor (IGF), high levels of which have been linked to disease.
Bovine serum albumin:
There is growing evidence to link child-onset diabetes to an allergy to bovine serum albumin (BSA) in dairy products. This type of diabetes starts with the immune system destroying the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. It has been theorised that diabetes-susceptible babies introduced to BSA earlier than around 4 months (before the gut wall has matured and become less permeable), are therefore more likely to develop an allergic response. The highest incidence of insulin-dependent diabetes is found in Finland – the country with the highest milk-production consumption.
Poor nutrient content:
Nutritionally speaking, dairy is bad news in a number of respects. For example, almost half of the calories in whole milk come from saturated fat, and nearly all of its carbohydrates come from sugar (all in the form of lactose, which many people can’t properly digest). Plus, dairy has no dietary fibre or iron.
So, why not might consider going dairy-free for a while to see if doing so significantly improves your health or quality of life!