We’d like to take on the often controversial natural health question of whether dairy use is healthy. You no doubt know that a variety of animal-based dairy products are consumed by people around the world today, and many are recommended by national and international health agencies.
As we will discuss, however, the objective health benefits of dairy products are mixed – depending on the product, method of production, and person. Overall, this comparatively new and special class of foods requires care and attentiveness, but we conclude dairy use can be part of a healthy approach to modern eating and living.
Turkish Cacik, Made With Yogurt & Cucumber
As a prelude to considering the health-relevant science of dairy production and consumption, we would like to start by highlighting two key sources of controversy within the natural health community regarding dairy use. In both cases, these sources of controversy are immediately instructive, can help us to be better informed about the wisdom of dairy products in particular, and offer lessons in the ways people can and might approach the task of health optimization more broadly.
The first source of dairy controversy comes from advocates of historically re-naturalized or forager-based eating models. Here, proponents reason that since dairy products are a new, less than 10,000 year-old food for humans and therefore not natural in a strict historical sense, they should be avoided. In earlier versions of the HumanaNatura diet, we in fact took this view.
At the other end of the natural health spectrum, most vegan and some vegetarian diet programs also discourage the use of dairy products. In these cases, advocates almost always point to the ethical benefits of avoiding animal-based foods. Proponents of these diets also typically note – but often overstate or misrepresent – the ecological and personal health benefits of plant-based diets.
Importantly, although these two different schools of dietary thought within the natural health community agree on little beyond the importance of fruits and vegetables, both sets of dairy prohibitions are generally or primarily based on philosophical considerations, rather than the practical health impacts we will discuss.
For these reasons, the modern use of dairy products – by both children and adults – can be a controversial topic among natural health advocates, as well as a confusing one for people more generally. Overall, this controversy and confusion is unfortunate, since the scientific case for our selected use of dairy products, especially biologically active yogurts, is quite clear and strong. And this conclusion is especially true when we consider modern health outcomes in broader or more encompassing terms than is typical today.
Definitions & Background
When we talk about dairy products, we of course mean various foods derived from the milk of cows and other mammals, typically domesticated ungulates. As suggested already and outlined here, human consumption of these foods began with the Agricultural Revolution – or within the last 10,000 years – and the practice therefore has its origins entirely in our pre-modern, but post-agricultural, shift to farming and shepherding.
A reasonably full list of modern-day dairy products is quite extensive, and even unexpectedly so. For HumanaNatura, this pervasiveness and the persistence of dairy products in both traditional and modern diets is suggestive – that their adoption may have been highly adaptive, at least in our immediate pre-modern history. That said, other explanations for the pervasiveness of pre-modern dairy consumption are possible, including habituation, aculturalization, and even supernormal influences.
As you may know, consideration of the adaptiveness of human behavior is consistent with, and even a hallmark of, HumanaNatura’s still unconventional definition of health. In this new view, health is seen as a natural capacity of an organism or group to thrive – including but extending beyond reproduction – especially over time and thus in changing circumstances and environments. Given this new sense of natural health, as we consider the health effects of human dairy production and consumption, our approach assesses their health impacts quite broadly – notably to include both their ecological and personal health effects.
In thinking about optimal modern eating, HumanaNatura takes the view that the healthiest foods we can eat overall will be ones that are both ecologically and personally healthy, or life-advancing. This of course is a higher standard than is typical, and one that many modern foods cannot meet. For example, some food sources – such as fruit-bearing trees and sugary perennials – can be produced sustainably and are thus quite healthy ecologically, but can be less healthy personally, especially when eaten directly or in excess.
These examples of only partially healthy foods are in stark contrast to human foods that can be both produced and consumed in ways that are both ecologically and personally healthy. Examples in this latter category include sustainably harvested or farmed fish, sustainably produced poultry, and lean, grass-fed meats. Also included are most raw salad vegetables and vegetable fruits, as long as these plant foods are produced sustainably (for example, via gardens and farms that employ composting and external inputs that are fully sustainable or self-renewing).
At the same time, many modern foods are less desirable from both environmental and nutritional health standpoints. Examples here include most traditional agricultural foods – including staple foods such as monoculture-grown grains, beans, and starches, as well as animals raised on these foods. Though counterintuitive to most people today, these widely used foods actively reduce soil and ecological health, and are today almost always produced unsustainably. At the same time, these foods also often have negative personal health effects when used in high amounts, as described here, owing to their unnatural (for humans) carbohydrates, lectins, and other constituent compounds.
To make better sense of these varying ecological and personal health effects from available modern foods, it may be helpful to consider the idea that foods which were part of our pre-agricultural human diet will naturally tend to be healthier for us, even today, both ecologically and personally. This idea has its origins in two important principles of natural nutrition: 1) we are long-adapted to eat our pre-agricultural foods physiologically, and 2) these foods in turn have been equally evolved for sustainability and ecological harmony in the natural environment. This proposal is of course not a perfect one, and modern science now offers many opportunities to improve and optimize our original forager diet. Exploring these opportunities is a principal focus within HumanaNatura’s Natural Eating technique.
The Scientific Evidence
As suggested already, when researching the ecological and personal health effects of dairy production and consumption, the ideological and thus less persuasive nature of many natural health arguments against dairy use can be seen. At the same time, a survey of relevant science also suggests that popular dairy production and consumption practices are generally inadequately evaluated for their personal and environmental health impacts. Between these conditions, however, a relatively good scientific case can be made for selected dairy production and use by most people (that is, by all people who do not have an identifiable dairy allergy).
Importantly, this proposal in favor of dairy use applies not only to the roughly 25 percent of modern adults and children who are lactase persistent and can easily digest the milk sugar lactose (via a recent natural adaptation that continues production of the enzyme lactase after infancy). The statement also is applicable to many of the 75 percent of us who are not lactase persistent – again, as long as we do not have a dairy allergy.
With this background, here is a recap of what we believe is the strong scientific case for selected dairy use by many or even most modern people:
> Ecological Health – as indicated before and summarized here, modern dairy production is potentially fully sustainable or healthy ecologically. In fact, thoughtful dairy production likely will be a part of now critically needed environmental restoration and carbon sequestration strategies based on the reclamation of former grassland areas desertified by past farming and shepherding activities. Both findings underscore the related ideas that healthy grasslands and grazing herd animals are a long-evolved, natural, and beneficial ecological system in semi-dry and dry regions of the world – covering over half of the earth’s arable or potentially arable land – and that these grassland animals were a primary source of pre-agricultural human food. While it is true that these grassland animals are a source of atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas, the output from these animals would be comparable to natural conditions when grazing is sustainably managed.
> Dairy Relevancy – as outlined above, cultured dairy products or bacterially active yogurts can be consumed by large numbers of modern people, even by those of us who are not lactase persistent, since the active cultures in yogurts and similar foods substantially break down the lactose for us prior to and after consuming these foods. In addition, we would add that most cheeses and fat-rich dairy products are usually low in lactose as well and can be consumed by many of us too. That said, these high-fat dairy foods are generally less desirable nutritionally.
> Drinking Milk – even in lactase persistent children and adults, the scientific case (summarized at Dairy Pros & Cons and Six Dairy Benefits) for significant milk consumption is only fair, due to the high calorie levels and often high saturated fat amounts contained in milk and milk-dominated beverages. In any case, milk drinking is also a nutritional practice that many children and most adults cannot take up, owing to the general rule in modern humans of lactose intolerance after infancy.
> Cheeses & Creams – the scientific case (see the summary links above) for the consumption of fat-rich dairy products – including cheeses and creams – is poor, due to the general undesirability of diets high in saturated fats (even as many adults can eat these foods, owing to their low lactose levels). Overall, cream and cheese use is best minimized in humans, and these foods or dairy by-products are better employed primarily as an agricultural inputs (including use as animal feeds and sources of compost).
> Yogurts & Related Products – as indicated already, the scientific case (see the above summary links) for consuming active yogurts as a protein source is quite good, as long as this does not result in excessive calories or fats – and as long as we are not allergic to or experience discomfort from these products. Again, many people can consumer yogurts, owing to their lactose metabolizing cultures. Yogurt eating is therefore a practice that most people can and should take up – or at least experiment with – on health-based grounds, especially when these foods are produced sustainably.
Dairy & HumanaNatura
For people following the HumanaNatura dietary approach, with low carbohydrate consumption overall and attentive saturated fat intake, addition of active yogurts with moderate to low levels of fat is likely to be at least health neutral at a personal level for most of us. At the same time, this practice is potentially quite healthy ecologically as well, and may be beneficial economically for people living in non-industrialized areas.
In addition, inclusion of active yogurts in our diet also makes possible vegetarian eating in a way that is generally consistent with the HumanaNatura dietary approach. Importantly, this unique form of vegetarianism is far more healthy ecologically than is typical with vegetarian diets, since destructive annual staple crops are omitted, and quite healthy personally (though perhaps not optimally so at a personal level).
This HumanaNatura-based and highly planet-friendly form of vegetarian eating can be achieved by: 1) including eggs and yogurts in our daily diet for protein, fats, and B-vitamins, 2) omitting all of the annual staple crops – carbohydrate-rich and soil-eroding monocrop grains, beans, and starchy roots – that normally dominate in vegetarian eating, and 3) otherwise following HumanaNatura’s OurPlate healthy eating model and dietary guidelines.
If you are interested in experimenting with dairy use within the HumanaNatura Personal Health Program and Natural Eating technique, we would offer the following general guidelines:
- Discuss your dietary plans with your physician in advance
- Add dairy gradually and stop if you have discomfort or allergic symptoms
- Limit dairy primarily to low to moderate-fat yogurts, and avoid milks, creams, and cheeses
- Reduce your daily fruit intake as needed to compensate for the extra calories and sugars, but ensure you eat at least two servings of fresh fruit per day
- Reduce your protein intake from other sources so that you do not exceed recommended daily amounts of proteins and fats
- Reduce your protein intake from eggs and red meat as needed so your combined protein from these foods and dairy products is no more than 50 percent of your total protein intake (note that this limitation will not be possible if you plan to be vegetarian and otherwise follow the HumanaNatura approach for its ecological health benefits)
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given our discussion, HumanaNatura rates the proposal that selected dairy use is ecologically and personally healthy an 8/10 (Strong Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base our rating on the above referenced research supporting the considered and individualized use of dairy products as a personal health promotion strategy. The rating also is based on the idea that modern dairy production can be fully sustainable ecologically and part of beneficial land management strategies to preserve and restore our earth’s natural grasslands.
Importantly, the rating recognizes that not all people can consume yogurts, but underscores the idea that those who can consume yogurts often can do so without reduced personal health levels – and often with personal and ecological health gains relative to other foods.
We hope this important (and no doubt controversial to some) discussion of dairy use is valuable to you, and that it will help you to make more informed and optimal decisions regarding your and your family’s daily eating practices.
You can click the following link to learn more about our Natural Truth health information campaign and evidence-based 1-10 rating system. And we always welcome your comments and input on this or any other HumanaNatura Natural Truth review.
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Photo courtesy of Cacik