Milk products and dairy products have become among the most widely-consumed foods worldwide. Breast milk is often the first food we consume as infants, and many mothers start feeding their children cows’ milk after the first year of age.
But is dairy bad for you, or do you need to drink milk and eat cheese to get your daily dose of calcium and other vitamins? And what exactly is lactose and lactose intolerance?
In a nutshell: There might be valid use cases for cows’ milk during infancy, but the human body loses its ability to break down lactose as we grow older. That often leads to gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort and low-grade inflammation, among other issues.
For this blog article, I looked at the latest scientific research to find out whether dairy is good or bad for you. I also provide recommendations on dairy alternatives and milk substitutes, such as coconut milk cashew and almond milk.
Check out my article featuring my favorite smoothie and protein shake recipes that use dairy alternatives.
So let’s dig into the unbiased truth about dairy, lactose and calcium, and see if a dairy-free diet has health benefits that make it worth considering.
Is Dairy Good for You?
For many years, science has supported the idea that dairy foods are a fundamental source of nutrients. Doctors and nutritionists usually recommend mothers feed their kids whole milk during childhood and adolescence if they are not lactose intolerant, and skim milk (a low-fat milk) if they want to reduce fat intake. They argue this ensures children grow tall with strong bones and healthy teeth. This perspective is reflected in the classic food pyramid, which places dairy right in the center of a supposedly well-balanced diet.
If we truly want to conduct an impartial analysis, then we should admit that dairy does contain some valuable nutrients.
For example, there’s no denying that milk is a rich source of protein and calcium. However, strict vegans do not consume milk or dairy products, and our ancestors did not consume cow milk for 2.5 million years (when they were hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era). Modern vegans are generally healthy and thriving, and our ancestors were fit and healthy enough to survive for generations to come.
So, that begs the following questions:
Is milk good for you? And is it necessary for reaching the recommended daily amount of calcium?
To find out, I searched the USDA National Nutrient Database, which lists all types of food with their nutrient contents. I discovered that collard greens, spinach, kale, and many other leafy greens are calcium-rich foods. We can also find reliable sources of protein in meat, poultry, nuts and vegetables, and plenty of potassium in things like parsley, tomatoes and peppers. So, while milk might have become a convenient source of nutrients, it does not provide anything that can’t be found in other foods.
Milk During Infancy
For infants who cannot consume solid food yet, drinking milk (i.e., breast milk) provides the necessary nutrients the body needs to grow. That’s why evolution has made milk a convenient source of food for nursing mammals. But as soon as children are ready to eat other foods and maintain a more well-balanced diet, milk is no longer necessary.
Infants digest lactose via an enzyme called lactase. But as we grow, most humans gradually lose the ability to degrade this type of sugar. As a result, nearly three out of four members of the world’s population can’t fully digest the lactose in milk. The inability to digest lactose results in symptoms of varying degrees, but often includes intestinal gas, bloating or diarrhea shortly after the consumption of milk. The problem can develop at any age, but older adults are more likely to be lactose intolerant.
Is Milk Bad for You?
Milk might not be essential, but it is readily available and dairy products are often quite delicious (giving up ice cream is no small task for anyone). So what are the reasons to consider a dairy-free diet, and are they sufficiently compelling?
Cutting milk and other dairy products from your diet can help prevent diabetes, certain types of cancer, and numerous other health problems.
Based on the scientific evidence, there are plenty of health benefits that are attained when you cut out dairy! The consumption of milk has numerous disadvantages, including the following:
- Milk is linked to a higher risk of Type 1 diabetes: Recent data points out that drinking milk or eating milk-based products might increase the risk of Type 1 diabetes in children who are genetically predisposed and have at least a minimal risk of developing the condition.
- Allergies and food intolerance: The most common side effects of consuming dairy is lactose intolerance, which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a milk allergy. However, people who are affected by lactose intolerance are in fact more likely to suffer from other types of actual food allergies, and if they have an inflammatory condition, consuming milk and dairy may aggravate their symptoms.
- Milk and prostate cancer/ovarian cancer: There are several studies about the association between milk and cancer. The most substantial evidence available suggests a link between dairy and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer or ovarian cancer. Scientists don’t know the exact relationship between dairy and those types of cancers yet, but we already know that neither the dietary fat nor the calcium in milk is the cause.
- Milk, multiple sclerosis, and other health problems: Dairy may also increase the prevalence of multiple sclerosis, and can cause recurrent episodes of otitis in sensitized children.
The Problem With Milk Protein
Besides milk sugar (lactose), dairy has another major issue. That’s casein, which is one of its proteins. The problem with casein is that its peptides are structurally similar to the inflammatory gliadin protein in certain grains, such as wheat.
There are two types of casein, called casein-beta A1 and casein-beta A2. Most of the dairy products we consume in the United States have both types of casein.
Studies have shown that casein, and casein-beta A1 in particular, has strong inflammatory properties that can lead to long-term health complications including metabolic and autoimmune diseases. As a result, patients with celiac disease (CD) who are on a gluten-free diet, but who consume dairy products, might still have GI issues because of the proteins in dairy.
As A1 protein is broken down during digestion, a substance called beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM-7) is released. BMC-7 is an opioid peptide, and recent research in animal models has found that it has mild but similar gastrointestinal effects as more potent opioids (such as those used in pain treatment). According to a 2017 NIH paper:
“Rodent studies have consistently reported opioid-mediated reduction in the rate of gastric emptying and increases in gastrointestinal transit time after the consumption of commercial casein […].”
When the researchers refer to “gastric emptying” and “increase[d] gastrointestinal transit time,” they’re talking about bloating and constipation, which can lead to stomach and abdominal pain.
Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that the consumption of dairy products containing casein-beta A1 may significantly and negatively affect the gut microbiome, which may in turn increase the risk of a variety of both short-term symptoms and chronic diseases.
As a result of this growing body of evidence demonstrating the potential adverse health effects of casein-beta A1 consumption, dairy farmers have started offering products that contain primarily casein-beta A2. This is possible because certain types of cows have slightly different genetic profiles, and therefore produce more of one protein than the other.
Milk products containing predominantly A2 protein will not induce the opioid effect described above and may be easier to digest — even among people who are lactose intolerant. This type of milk is usually available at Whole Foods and some other supermarkets, although it’s quite difficult to find other A2 dairy products (such as cheese and yogurt) in the United States.
It’s worth noting that both goats’ milk and camels’ milk contain only casein-beta A2, and may provide an overall healthier alternative to cows’ milk (keep reading to learn more about other dairy-related health issues). I frequently opt for camels’ milk, and one of my favorite brands is Desert Farms*.
Milk and Growth Hormones
Agriculture is a big business and some farmers do anything they can to grow their cattle as quickly as possible — and to make them produce as much milk as possible. One of the tools of the trade is hormones.
Some farmers use bovine somatotropin (bST) — also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) — a natural growth hormone that’s allowed by the FDA to increase milk production. After some consumer backlash, many dairy brands have stopped using bovine growth hormones.
However, even milk from cows that were not treated with bST has significant levels of the hormones that calves need to grow. So the question is this:
Do bovine growth hormones have a negative impact on human health?
Based on the studies I have seen, the evidence is inconclusive. However, considering that no other mammal consumes the milk of another mammal, and humans did not drink cow milk for millions of years, I recommend erring on the side of caution.
Myths and Facts About Milk and Dairy
Through the years, new scientific breakthroughs and clinical findings are continually widening our understanding of nutrition and dietetics. Therefore, the field of nutritional advice is continuously changing, and dietary guidelines are constantly in flux. For instance, eggs have lots of cholesterol, and doctors used to advise people with high blood cholesterol to stay away from them. Later, we realized that dietary cholesterol in eggs rarely reaches the bloodstream and thus has no impact on blood cholesterol.
Our understanding of the risks and benefits of dairy, and of milk in particular, have changed similarly over the years. But myths tend to stick around, likely caused by the strong influence of the food industry and our economic reliance on dairy production (not to mention our own psychological stubbornness).
Below are some facts and myths we often hear when talking about dairy.
Yogurt Is Easier to Digest Than Milk
Fact: In the creation of yogurt, manufacturers add certain bacterial cultures to milk to promote fermentation. This is one of the key selling points that has propelled the recent Greek yogurt craze. These bacteria are capable of breaking down lactose into lactic acid, and that’s why people with lactose intolerance might not experience gastrointestinal symptoms when they consume yogurt.
Is yogurt good for you? Well, it’s better than milk. But most of the yogurts you find in the supermarket aisle have a ton of sugar. That’s especially true for low-fat yogurts. If you must have yogurt, choose a full-fat option that doesn’t contain any added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Milk Is Necessary to Reduce Bone Fracture Risk
Myth: Bone health depends on calcium, and milk has a lot of calcium. But in medicine, we can’t take everything for granted — even when it seems apparent.
Observational studies report that osteoporosis and hip fracture are more prevalent in countries with higher calcium intake. This “calcium paradox” shows that consuming calcium-rich foods in and of itself is not enough to reduce bone fracture risk.
Additionally, there is little evidence to suggest that dairy consumption by itself improves bone health. Instead, scientists have linked consuming too much animal protein to an increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures. If your goal is reduced risk, you should increase your intake of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
I recently underwent a full-body scan that tested factors such as body fat, muscle balance and bone density. While one body scan is purely anecdotal and can’t substitute for peer-reviewed research, it was interesting to learn that my bone density placed me in the top percentile for my age group — and I consume almost zero dairy.
I seem to be getting plenty of calcium without dairy. That’s due at least in part to the fact that I eat bone-in fish and bone broth, which are two healthy non-dairy calcium sources.
It’s also worth noting that our calcium needs are lower if we get sufficient magnesium and Vitamin K2 from the food we eat. The latter regulates calcium metabolism and helps deposit calcium into our bones, which means less of the calcium we consume is wasted.
However, if your plan is to ensure that you’re getting enough magnesium through supplements, be aware that clinically-relevant oral dosages of the mineral have a laxative effect. That’s why I like Ancient Minerals, which is a brand that offers magnesium supplements that get absorbed via the skin*. The skin is better than the gut when it comes to absorbing and utilizing magnesium, so less of it gets flushed down the drain.
Milk Causes Kidney Stones
Myth: Milk does not cause or increase the risk or size of kidney stones. Most of these stones consist of calcium-oxalate. That’s why many people think that the calcium in milk might make those stones larger. But there’s calcium in your bloodstream all the time, and it doesn’t have anything to do with kidney stones.
So instead of worrying about calcium, we should draw our attention to the second component of kidney stones: oxalate. High intake of this salt can increase the risk of kidney stones. Foods rich in oxalate include peanuts, rhubarb and soy.
Besides their high amount of anti-nutrients, that’s one more reason to stay away from legumes (including peanuts and soy).
Skim Milk Is Better Than Regular Milk
Myth: While it is true that low-fat milk has fewer calories than regular (whole) milk, the difference is insignificant. Besides, cutting out milk fat is not exactly good news. There are several fat-soluble vitamins in milk that your body can absorb more effectively using the fat in regular milk.
Some studies have even reported that whole milk may reduce the risk of obesity. Hopefully, most of you have realized by now that the low-fat movement was a terrible idea based on a flawed and incorrect concept (the lipid hypothesis) that eating fat causes weight gain and is bad for you. I would argue that the fat in milk is its healthiest component. Most people have issues with lactose (milk sugar), and some people are allergic to milk’s proteins (whey and casein), but barely anybody has problems with its fat. So if you have to drink milk, don’t cut out the best part of it by choosing skim milk. In contrast, opt for high-fat dairy products whenever possible.
Cheese Is Better Than Milk
Myth: It’s true that aged cheese has only residual amounts of lactose and might thus be “safer” to consume for people who have low levels of lactase. Additionally, cheese is often also high in saturated fat, which I don’t necessarily consider a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, cheese is also incredibly high in sodium, which makes it a poor choice for those who are at risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease. Plus, its higher sodium content might do what milk does not: promote the formation of kidney stones. If you enjoy indulging in cheese every once in a while, I recommend cheeses that are low in sodium, such as goat milk cheese and Swiss cheese.
Is Cheese Bad for You?
Consuming cheese has almost the same nutritional properties as drinking a cup of milk. It’s a convenient source of calcium. However, cheese has stopped being a natural product and has instead become a processed food. Thus, whether it’s healthy or not depends on the additives and ingredients used to obtain the final product.
First off, cheese might not be a safe option for people with lactose intolerance. It may cause bloating, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. There are certain types of cheese, such as parmesan and other hard cheeses, with a lower level of lactose, and some people with lactose intolerance might be OK consuming them. However, everybody reacts differently and you can’t predict the outcome with certainty.
Processed cheese, feta cheese, Edam cheese and others have a very high concentration of salt. This prevents bacteria from growing, improves taste, and controls moisture during processing. As a result, cheese is not a good ally if you suffer from risk of cardiovascular disease. If you still want to consume cheese, look for low-sodium options.
When I buy cheese, I look for unpasteurized (goat milk) cheeses that have been only minimally processed.
Convenient Does Not Equal Healthy
All things considered, milk is a convenient way to obtain many different nutrients in only one cup. Nature designed milk for mammalian infants to provide them with all of these nutrients until they can eat other types of food.
That’s why we gradually lose the ability to degrade and absorb lactose, causing gastrointestinal symptoms in most people. Even those who have not been diagnosed with lactose intolerance may experience mild symptoms because they lack enough of the enzymes to digest milk sugar.
Moreover, consuming milk and dairy products might have side effects. It can increase the risk of Type 1 diabetes, certain types of cancer, multiple sclerosis and allergies, among other conditions. Some types of dairy might be beneficial, but others increase the risk of heart disease and promote the formation of kidney stones.
If we can find plenty of calcium in leafy vegetables, why expose ourselves to the risks that come with dairy consumption? Similar to fast food, the answer is that drinking a cup of milk is convenient and easier than preparing a healthy, balanced meal.
I also appreciate that changing dietary habits is difficult — especially when kids are involved. But it’s time to challenge the status quo and do what’s best for our bodies according to the latest scientific research.
Dairy Alternatives and Milk Substitutes
If you’re planning to cut out dairy, you might appreciate that there are plenty of non-dairy foods that taste like the real deal — or even better. In other cases, they don’t taste better but are healthier. I’ll choose healthy over tasty any day of the week, but I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm.
The healthiest alternatives for regular milk are nut-based products, including almond milk and cashew milk. If you prefer dairy, stick with goat, sheep, or camel milk*.
When you pick a product, make sure it doesn’t contain any unhealthy ingredients — especially added sugar or other fillers.
Most nut milk on the market contains stuff you want to stay away from (especially the flavored versions). We usually buy almond milk from New Barn* or Malk and cashew milk from Forager, because they have the least amount of “extra ingredients.” Some of those brands are available on Amazon, but we usually get them at Whole Foods.
If you don’t feel like making your own coffee creamer, there are numerous coconut oil-based options from brands, such as the ones I feature on my Keto Products page.
What I would recommend staying away from is soy milk — or anything that contains soy, for that matter. Despite popular belief, soy isn’t a healthy food. The raw beans are toxic, and even when cooked or processed, they contain a ton of anti-nutrients like lectins and saponins, which can cause inflammation, GI issues, and create conditions conducive to cardiovascular disease.
We have discovered almond cheese at Whole Foods, but I question whether it’s much healthier than real cheese because it’s a highly processed food. It’s free of lactose, but it contains casein (milk protein) and about 190 mg of sodium. The better choice is aged goat or sheep cheese, because it has only residual amounts of lactose (due to the aging), and casein-beta A2.
I’m not a huge fan of yogurt. But for protein shakes, fruit bowls or paleo granola, we use plant-based yogurts from Lavva. Occasionally, I also indulge in Kefir, which contains only a little lactose thanks to fermentation and a ton of probiotic bacteria.
You can find Lavva yogurts at Whole Foods, and other organic food markets.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Below are common questions people have asked me. I will keep this FAQ updated with any new questions I get from my readers, so check back from time to time.
Yes, breast milk contains lactose, which is why nature has equipped infants with an enzyme called lactase. Unfortunately, the enzyme becomes less active after weaning the infant from the breast, and most adults lose the ability to break down milk sugar altogether.
Interestingly enough, in Northern Europe and East Africa, we have seen an adaptation to consuming dairy through what is called lactase persistence.
Soy contains proteins that are not good for the human body, as I explained above. I recommend staying away from any products containing soy.
Cheese is not a natural source of gluten, which is a protein found in some grains. However, manufacturers might produce cheese in facilities that also process foods that contain gluten. So if you have celiac disease, double check the label.
Most cheese is naturally high in saturated fat, which isn’t a bad thing. The high fat content makes cheese a favorite food in the keto diet, which is used for (among other reasons) weight loss. But if you’re counting macros or trying to reduce your calories, cheese might not be an ideal choice.
If dairy is an integral part of your diet, I’d recommend replacing milk and cheese with some of the dairy alternatives I mentioned above. For me, the hardest part of trying to remove dairy from my diet is letting go of cheese. Thanks to its high fat and sodium content, cheese tastes delicious… there is no question about that. Unfortunately, sodium increases the risk of cardiovascular problems like heart disease.
Kefir is among a relatively small group of fermented dairy products, and one of the few dairy products I occasionally consume (because it’s 99% lactose-free). During the fermentation process, the lactose in Kefir gets converted to sugar. As a result, Kefir contains as much sugar as milk, but at least not in the form of lactose. Unfortunately, Kefir still has the inflammatory casein-beta A1 protein.
On the bright side, Kefir contains probiotic strains of bacteria, which are beneficial for the health of your gut. Plus, Kefir is a good source of protein (whey and casein).
As with the non-dairy foods I mentioned above, make sure to pick plain Kefir that doesn’t contain added sugars. Kefir has plenty of sugar already, and adding more diminishes its benefits drastically.
Maple Hill* is our preferred Kefir brand because they use milk from grass-fed dairy cows.
Nope, and there are a couple of reasons for that:
First, humans only started consuming dairy when they discovered farming and began domesticating animals, about 9,000-10,000 years ago.
Second, evolution has not equipped the human body to digest specific components of dairy beyond infancy (especially lactose).
Lactase is nothing more than an enzyme that you can take as a supplement (Amazon*) to help with the breakdown of lactose. So if you have to have dairy but lack the required enzyme to digest milk sugar, you can talk to your doctor or nutritionist about supplementing with lactase.
I’d argue that most kids aren’t fans of leafy greens. To ensure that our kids eat them anyway, my wife and I make delicious smoothies that offer a much healthier alternative to a cup of milk. Ingredients we often use include: unsweetened cashew or almond milk, a cup of spinach leaves (or kale), half a (frozen) banana, half an avocado, or a handful of unsalted nuts (which we get from Costco).
Talk to Your Doctor
I always recommend involving a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your or your kid’s diet. However, I have come across plenty of doctors who preach what they learned in med school, and depending on how old they are, that is sometimes outdated and incorrect information (like the grossly-inaccurate standard food pyramid and its corresponding dietary guidelines).
Our primary care doctor is relatively young and stays on top of the latest developments in medical care. He is also on the paleo diet and does CrossFit, and is thus well-aligned with our family’s way of life.
Our pediatrician is older and has a wealth of experience. While he does not follow a Paleolithic diet (as far as I know), but a more traditional dietary lifestyle, he has made every effort to work with us and our kids. Having a doctor who keeps an open mind and tries to work with you, especially if your way of life is scientifically sound, is priceless.
If you feel like your doctor ignores scientific facts in favor of doing things the “traditional” way, regardless of whether there is evidence that might be detrimental to your long-term health, I would look for another care provider.
Overall, dairy is a convenience food that offers essential nutrients, such as protein and calcium. Cows’ milk is an effective way to deliver those essential nutrients to infants who are older than 12 months but can’t eat solid food yet.
However, beyond that short time during infancy, consuming dairy has plenty of disadvantages, and it increases the risk of numerous health problems. Most yogurt (including Greek yogurt) is loaded with sugar (as is chocolate milk and ice cream, obviously); cheese typically has a huge amount of sodium, which can raise your blood pressure and lead to an increased risk of heart disease. And all dairy products — even organic, sustainably-produced ones from grass-fed cows — have some degree of natural or artificial bovine hormones.
Additionally, milk and dairy products that contain high concentrations of casein-beta A1 causes low-grade inflammation that may raise the risk of Parkinson’s disease and other chronic ailments. Research also suggests a link between dairy consumption and an increased risk of prostate cancer, although the relationship between the two is not yet fully understood. Finally, consuming dairy products with the A1 protein causes the release of BMC-7, which is an opioid peptide believed to cause gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, constipation and stomach discomfort.
Fortunately, milk and dairy are not the only calcium-rich foods. Bone-in fish, bone broth and certain leafy greens all provide a viable source of calcium, while sufficient magnesium intake can help your body process that calcium more efficiently. There is also a wide range of high-quality cow’s milk substitutes available, from camel’s milk to nut milks made from cashews and almonds.
If going dairy free doesn’t seem like a viable option, make sure to drink milk from grass-fed cows and opt for high-fat dairy products whenever possible.
I hope this guide answers the question “why is dairy bad for you,” and helps you see that consuming cow’s milk and other dairy products should be the exception rather than the rule.
Do you have any questions about dairy, milk and cheese? If so, let me know by leaving a comment below!