Depending on who you ask, dairy is either poison or a great source of nutrition. The truth lies somewhere in the middle and depends on the person. By the time you finish reading this post, you will know exactly how to figure out
1) Whether you should consume dairy or not.
2) If so, what kind of dairy?
3) How to source high-quality dairy.
I will give you a specific, step-by-step guide to dairy. Let’s dig in!
What is Lactase Persistence?
As infants, we all can digest lactose, the type of sugar found in milk. For most of human history, when infants grew out of the breastfeeding stage, their ability to digest lactose disappeared. However, about twelve thousand years ago, there was a simple genetic mutation in some humans that gave them the ability to digest lactose into adulthood.
This is called lactase persistence. Lactase is the enzyme required for the proper digestion of lactose. This genetic mutation was a huge survival advantage in certain parts of the world because humans with this genetic mutation were able to consume animal milk while other humans could not. This gave humans with lactase persistence another source of calories and nutrients, and thus, a huge evolutionary advantage. This made them more likely to survive and pass on their genes.
Today approximately one-third of the human population has lactase persistence. In certain parts of the world, the percentage is much higher than in others. For example, about ninety-seven percent of Scandinavians have lactase persistence, while only about fifteen percent of Asians can digest lactose. In certain parts of Africa, lactase persistence is high while in other parts, it is almost non-existent. To read more about lactase persistence, check out this study on Pubmed.
Do I have lactase Persistence?
Now that you know all about lactase persistence, how do you determine if you have lactase persistence? The first thing you should do is look at your ancestry. Do you have European ancestry? This makes it more likely that you have lactase persistence. Do you hail from northern European ancestry specifically? If you do, it is even more likely that you can digest lactose.
If you come from Asian ancestry, your odds of possessing lactase persistence are unlikely. This makes sense when you look at most traditional Asian cuisine which typically does not contain dairy. Look at your ancestry and trace it back as far as you can. You can get DNA tests from places like 23andme.com . You can receive vital information about yourself that can tell you whether or not you are lactose intolerant. There are food intolerance tests from several different companies.
If you do not want to purchase laboratory testing, you can start an elimination diet to help determine your body’s ability to digest lactose. I discuss this in the next section. Once you have determined if you are lactose intolerant or not, you can move on to the next step in the process. If you do not produce lactase, you will want to minimize your dairy intake. You can also take a lactase supplement when you occasionally eat dairy to give your pancreas a modern digestive assist. If you do have lactase persistence, you can move on to the next step in this process.
Is your gut healthy enough for dairy?
Even if you naturally produce the proper enzymes to break down lactose, your gut might not be healthy enough to eat dairy. An elimination diet can help you determine if dairy is giving you problems. Here are a few questions to help you find out if your gut is in good shape or not:
- Do you eat highly processed foods regularly?
- Do you eat gluten-filled grains regularly?
- Do you eat foods out of BPA-lined cans?
- Do you drink water from water bottles made from BPA?
- Do you consume refined sugar more than once per week?
- Do you drink alcohol more than twice per week?
- Have you taken a lot of antibiotics in your life?
- Do you consistently sleep less than 7 hours per night?
- Are you stressed?
- Are you sedentary for most of your day?
- Are you ever constipated?
- Do you ever have diarrhea?
- Do you commonly experience flatulence and/or bloating?
- Do you feel tired all the time?
- Do you feel depressed or anxious?
The more of these questions you answer yes to, the more likely it is that you are dealing with some type of gut dysbiosis. This could include a range of different issues, including small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, candida overgrowth, parasitic infection, and intestinal permeability. A very large percentage of Americans have some type of gut issue, which goes hand in hand with poor overall health.
Genetics Don't mean 100%
Even if you are not genetically sensitive to dairy, poor gut health might make it hard for you to properly digest dairy and will lead to the classic symptoms of dairy intolerance, which could include flatulence, bowel irregularities, indigestion, belching, brain fog, and many other unpleasant side effects.
I begin with most of my clients by guiding them through a strict elimination diet to start. The goal is to get people on the least restrictive diet that provides optimal health and happiness. Some people need to go on this elimination diet but might not be able to handle it emotionally. If that is the case, adjustments can be tailored to the individual. The most common foods eliminated include dairy, gluten, soy, corn, shellfish, and peanuts.
After giving these foods up for 30 days, you can slowly reintroduce dairy into your diet to see how you feel. In the next section, I will get into what kind of dairy you should be eating.
The benefits of eating dairy
Dairy products are nutrient-dense foods, supplying energy and high-quality protein with a range of essential micronutrients including calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and phosphorus in an easily absorbed form. Dairy is also delicious food that is used as an ingredient to make many dishes we love. There are plenty of reasons to eat dairy if you can tolerate it.
What type of dairy is best to eat?
When you consume dairy it should ideally be:
- Full fat
- Raw (unpasteurized)
It can be hard to find raw dairy in certain parts of the country. Federal law prohibits the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk and there are only 12 states that allow the sale of raw milk at retail stores. The pasteurization process involves heating the milk to 150 degrees. Even though this process might slightly reduce the chances of contamination, it also destroys the beneficial probiotics and enzymes in the milk, denatures milk protein, and changes lactose into something called beta lactose, which rapidly spikes your blood sugar.
If possible, raw milk is the way to go. No matter what state you live in, you probably do not live too far from a farm that produces raw milk. It is important to note that pregnant women are advised to avoid raw dairy.
Butter and ghee are both good options to include in your diet. Another good option is unsweetened yogurt. Yogurt made at a local farm from raw, grass-fed milk has little in common with most store-bought yogurt. Most supermarket yogurt is full of added sugar and other nasty ingredients. If you choose to eat yogurt, try to make it at home or buy it from a local farm that uses raw, grass-fed milk. To find real, raw milk near you, go to realmilk.com. You can also drink kefir, which is a liquid form of yogurt. Play around with these to see how you react to them; everybody is different.
- Determine if you are in the third of the world’s population that has lactase persistence.
- Start with an elimination diet for two weeks by eliminating dairy, soy, gluten, sugar, corn, and vegetable oils.
- Slowly reintroduce some raw, grass-fed, full-fat dairy into your diet and examine how you feel.
- Stick to butter and ghee at first and see if you can tolerate yogurt or kefir after.
Kayla Newnam See all the author’s articles