Should you eat dairy? This dietitian is finally weighing in.
I am not sure if I love – or loathe – when a new documentary causes such as food fuss.
Of course, I am talking about What the Health.
While debate is uber-healthy, the extreme fear-mongering and complete, closed-minded dismissals that are being born on the internet are not. Of course, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. But reason and balance don’t inspire millions of hits.
And, when coming from a human, the answer is never without bias.
So let’s start with my bias.
I have been a vegetarian for a couple of decades…and a cheese addict for most of those years. However, this year, I have largely given up dairy and eat close to a vegan diet (probably 90% of the time).
Why? Because it makes me feel better…more energetic and fewer annoying digestive symptoms which I now have to worry about in my 30s. Eating less dairy also falls in line with my environmental and social ethics. However, while some who eat vegan or vegetarian diets will claim that everyone should go the same way, I don’t.
Instead, my belief is that everyone can nudge the needle a little closer in the plant-centred direction. In their own time…and in a way that feels doable to
My reasons for promoting a more plant-centred diet?
A healthier body
The research is pretty crystal clear here; eating more whole plant foods – fruits, vegetables, beans, whole intact grains, nuts and seeds – will bring better health. You don’t need to be vegan or vegetarian to get these benefits. But you do need to eat a lot of plants.
A healthier planet
While debate exists about the extent of the damage and long term consequences, the statistics on the water, greenhouse gas and energy impact of intensive animal agriculture are pretty mind-boggling. The worst culprit? Cows, pigs and lamb.
Because of our farming methods and food system, we have been able to keep the cost of meat and dairy artificially low…but that seems to be changing. If you are inclined to purchase food from local family farms or choose organic, you are paying even more.
Chickpeas are cheaper than chuck. Full stop.
Having a gentler relationship with the animal world…
if that’s important to you.
Ethics. It’s a prickly subject so I am going to keep it light. Our personal ethics come from a variety of origins and it is, in my mind, unethical to impose your beliefs on others. Educate and share, yes…cajole or shame…no.
Your ethics may not make the consumption of animal products a problem, which is totally fine. In that case, a little lighter use of these precious resources will improve your health and the health of the planet…because sustainability is everybody’s business.
For me, my ethics are about minimizing harm and impact. I think it is naive in our very consumeristic and resource-intensive society to think that we can totally eliminate harm through our food choices. So, I choose not to eat meat or fish…but dairy and eggs are a greyer area for me.
In theory, these foods are without ethical issue for me. However, because of how we mass produce these products, they are an ethical issue for me so I try to minimize my consumption. But it took me a long time to get here.
And let me be clear…your food choices do not make you a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. It’s food. It’s not black or white.
So…should you eat dairy?
If you’re getting tired and aren’t into long reads, let me give you the spoiler. There are no ‘should’s’ here. Eat it…don’t eat it…you can be healthy (or unhealthy) either way.
If you want to dive into a few hundred words of the nitty gritty, let’s beat back some internet hyperbole, shall we?
Will dairy kill you?
Of course not. Well, maybe if a dairy cow fell on you in a field and you couldn’t breathe. But that’s just as unlikely as death via drinking milk.
It’s just like those bogus ‘sugar is toxic’ headlines. Excellent click bait – shoddy reporting.
However, just like sugar, how we use dairy in our countries may make you very sick over your lifetime.
The vast majority of the food we eat is comprised of wheat flour, sugar, dairy and soy isolates….made into very hyper-processed, high-glycemic, energy-excessive and nutrient-poor foods.
Make no mistake, this way of eating is killing us. Slowly, but surely.
Overweight and obesity are epidemic. The amount of medications we need to take to prop up our failing systems and beat back lifestyle disease is ridiculous. We should all have the energy to live our lives the way we want, without meds…and with no loss of function or disease until much later in life.
It’s the food, people.
Meal patterns with an emphasis on low fibre, high sugar foods and high animal protein + saturated fat are associated with increased weight, chronic disease and even digestive issues. So eating less is a great idea.
But a piece of cheese – or a little bit of smoked salmon – with a glass of wine on a Friday night after a healthy week of smoothies and grain bowls? It’s really no big deal.
The key is keeping this in balance: it’s that old 80/20 rule. If 80% of the time, you are eating healthy whole plant foods, 20% of the time you can get away with the wine-steak-cheese-cupcake.
Does that ratio seem far away from your everyday? Take it slow. If you eat meat three times a day, drop it down to two…then one. Or, if you want to get wild, try a meatless Monday on for size. Don’t force it – or you’ll never make it permanent. Remember, progress…not perfection.
Will eliminating dairy make my *insert concern here* better? Maybe.
I have irritable bowel. And super annoying adult acne. Eliminating dairy has not ‘cured’ either of these issues. Neither has my insanely healthy, mostly vegan, whole food diet. Genes, stress and hormones are more likely culprits for me…although I cannot imagine how I would look and feel if I didn’t live a healthy lifestyle.
However, some people really do need to nix the dairy. If you are dairy allergic, you had better not consume dairy. Also, dairy contains lactose…and if you are lactose intolerant, removing the lactose (or dairy altogether) from your diet can make you feel miles better. Lactose is a FODMAP, meaning that as part of a low FODMAP diet, lactose avoidance may improve symptoms of IBS.
There are inklings in the literature that avoiding dairy may improve some concerns such as asthma, allergy or skin troubles. But it is so far from conclusive, we cannot label it as fact.
Of course, it really won’t hurt for you to try a dairy elimination and see if you feel better. If it works for you, awesome!
Do you need to eat dairy? Absolutely not.
The idea that dairy has its own food group was based on our traditional pattern of eating in North America, where you could consider a plate of almost exclusively white and brown foods a complete meal. A huge industry built up around this meal pattern, which now keeps the pressure on our regulatory bodies to maintain the status quo.
Remember that at the heart of this are farmers…real people who do back-breaking work to feed us. This isn’t some evil plot for world domination.
However, we now know better…so we can do better. Food systems need to shift to support the health of our people and our planet.
We’ve learned that the major nutrients we get from dairy, such as calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, riboflavin and protein, are easily had from other foods. Modern life has also granted us a whole bunch of plant-based options – some healthier than others – that can easily replace dairy foods in our lives if we so choose.
So while at one point in our history, dairy was a very valuable food, it isn’t a necessity anymore.
A word about What the Health…and nutrition debate in general.
I love that people are starting to care about food, food systems and health so much that they will devote an evening to watching a food documentary. But remember, a documentary is edu-tainment. It will always be a biased – and a sensationalized – version of the truth.
I think it is important to be aware of how our food makes it to our plate. But I don’t like fear mongering. If you eat a ton of meat and dairy, you should know that those nondescript discount packs of meat and cheese don’t get produced on bucolic farms, where all of the cows have names and get belly rubs.
If you know that…and are okay with that…that’s fine.
But if that discovery shocks you, it might be worthwhile evaluating the role these foods play in our life. If What the Health has inspired you to make more plant-centred choices, that’s awesome. I couldn’t be happier! It’s an awesome way to eat. Go see a dietitian who can help you reap the most benefit from your newfound dietary path.
And for all of us in internet land, please remain kind and respectful of others who make dietary choices that look different than your own. We all should strive to be healthy…but this will look a bit different for each and every one of us. And that’s okay.