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For this Natural Truth discussion, we would like to take on the often controversial natural health question of whether the use of dairy products is healthy. You no doubt know that a variety of dairy products are consumed by people around the world today, and many are recommended by national and international public health agencies. But among natural health practitioners and alternative nutrition advocates, support for dairy consumption is far more mixed.
In our view, the health benefits of dairy products can be significant, but they are naturally conditional – notably depending on the product, production method, person, and our personal dietary goals. This comparatively new and in many ways special class of foods therefore requires care and attentiveness. But overall and as we will discuss, we conclude that selective dairy use often can be a part of healthy modern eating.
Turkish Cacik, Made With Yogurt & Cucumber
As a prelude to considering the health-relevant science of both dairy production and consumption, we would like to start by highlighting three key sources of controversy within the natural health community regarding dairy use. In all 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 and topic of health more broadly.
The first source of dairy controversy we want to highlight comes from advocates of strongly forager-based or historically tethered eating approaches. 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 early versions of HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program, we in fact took this historically minded view.
A second source of dairy controversy is at the other end of the natural health spectrum, where most vegan and some vegetarian diet programs similarly 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 often also typically emphasize – but frequently overstate or misrepresent – the personal and ecological health benefits of 100 percent plant-based diets.
Importantly, and although these two very different schools of dietary thought within the natural health community agree on little (perhaps beyond the importance of a vegetable-rich diet), both sets of dairy prohibitions are generally or primarily based on philosophical considerations, rather than scientific ones and the empirical or practical health impacts we will discuss.
A third source of controversy regarding dairy use occurs within the increasingly strident debate between advocates of high-carb/low-fat and low-carb/high-fat (or ketogenic) eating – controversy that of course now extends well beyond the natural health community, and reaches far into both mainstream nutritional science and popular culture. Here, advocates in the first group will often encourage carbohydrate-rich milk and yogurt consumption, but discourage the use of fat-heavy butter and cheese. Conversely, ketogenic eating proponents usually do exactly the reverse – frequently discouraging milk and yogurt, but often promoting consumption of fat-rich butter and cheese.
For these and other reasons, the modern and ideal use of dairy products – whether by children or adults – is today a reliably contentious issue among natural health advocates and health professionals, and therefore a confusing or uncertain topic for people generally. Overall, this controversy and confusion is unfortunate, since for people who readily tolerate one or more dairy products, the scientific case for their selective use is clear and quite strong.
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 perhaps 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 and 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 sense and definition of health. In this view, health is seen as the natural capacity of an organism or group to survive and thrive, including but extending beyond reproduction, especially over time and thus in changing circumstances, environments, and challenges. Given this newer sense of natural health, as we consider the health effects of human dairy production and consumption, or many other health topics, our approach often assesses their health impacts quite broadly – and notably including both their personal and ecological 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 personally and ecologically healthy, or life-advancing. This of course is a higher or more complex standard for eating than is typical today, and one that many modern foods cannot meet. For example, some food sources – such as sugary perennials and perennial legumes – can be produced sustainably and are thus quite healthy ecologically, but can be less healthy personally. By contrast, most vegetable greens and other raw-edible plants are very healthy at a personal level, but significant steps must be taken to make them ecologically healthy as well.
These examples of only partially healthy foods are in stark contrast to human foods that can be readily produced and consumed in ways that are both personally and ecologically healthy. Examples in this category include sustainably harvested fish, sustainable fruit and nut-tree farming, sustainably produced eggs and poultry, and pastured and grass-fed meats. In each case, these foods can be raised in perpetuity and without significant ecological harm, and eaten by people robustly and healthfully, though subject to natural and discernible ideal amounts.
At the same time, many modern foods are much less desirable from both environmental and personal health standpoints. Examples here include most traditional agricultural foods – including staple foods such as monocrop grains and beans, processed foods made from them, and animals raised on grains and beans. 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 in our Personal Health Program, owing to their high insulin effects, unnatural hormonal and metabolic influences, and/or various indigestible and tissue-inflaming components.
To make better sense of these varying personal and ecological health effects from available modern foods, and returning to the idea of using historical human eating patterns as a health gauge or indicator, it may be helpful to again consider the idea that foods which were part of our pre-agricultural human diet will naturally tend to be healthier for us, even today, and both ecologically and personally. By contrast, newer human foods, and especially ones with their origins in or after the Agrarian Revolution, may have less certain health impacts and should be subject to significant scrutiny.
This historically minded perspective on foods has its origins in two important principles of natural nutrition: 1) we were long-adapted to eat our pre-agricultural foods physiologically, and 2) these foods in turn likely have been similarly evolved for sustainability or ecological harmony in the natural environment. This proposal is of course not a perfect one, and modern science now offers many opportunities to improve upon and optimize our original forager diet, and once again both physiologically and ecologically. Exploring these opportunities is a principal focus within HumanaNatura’s Natural Eating technique.
With this background, and once more returning to a crucial area of modern nutritional science controversy, we want to again emphasize that dairy products can be understood as occurring in two broad and perhaps crucial nutritional categories – carbohydrate-rich milks, yogurts, and related products, and then butters, cheeses, and other fat-rich dairy products. As a practical matter, the ecological impacts of these foods are apt to be quite similar, whereas the physiological health impacts may be significantly divergent, depending on still developing science about optimal fat/carbohydrate ratios in modern diets.
In any case, and as we will discuss next, it is essential to underscore that fat-rich dairy products are consumable by many modern people, since they are largely free of the often-indigestible and upsetting milk sugar, lactose, found significantly in milk and to a lesser degree in yogurt.
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 common dairy production and consumption practices are generally inadequately evaluated for both their personal and environmental health impacts. Between these conditions, however, a relatively good scientific case can be made for selective dairy production and use by most people (that is, by all people who do not have a clear dairy allergy, intolerance, or aversion).
Once again, 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 digest milk sugar (via a recent natural adaptation that continues production of the enzyme lactase after infancy). It is also 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 – since consumption of yogurt, butter or cheese often may possible, and these foods can be an excellent source of proteins, essential fatty acids, and fat-soluble and other vitamins and minerals.
Here is a brief recap of what we believe is the quite strong scientific case for selective dairy use by many or even most modern people:
> Ecological Health – as indicated before and summarized here, modern dairy production is potentially a fully sustainable activity, or healthy ecologically. In fact, sustainable and soil strengthening dairy (and meat) production can and likely increasingly will be a part of now critically needed environmental restoration and carbon sequestration strategies – one involving the strengthening of existing grasslands and the reclamation of former grassland areas desertified by earlier monocrop farming or animal overgrazing. Crucially, both findings underscore the related ideas that healthy grasslands and grazing herd animals are a long-evolved, natural, symbiotic or circular, and highly 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. In addition, and as with egg as opposed to poultry production, sustainable grassland dairy production in particular offers the prospect of greater food yields from the same number of animals, and thus greater food production and ecological efficiency.
> Dairy Relevancy – as outlined above, one or more dairy products can be consumed by large numbers of modern people, and even by many of us who are not lactase persistent. Of course, as emphasized, our tolerance for dairy will vary considerably by person – with some of us able to consume dairy in all forms and high amounts, some needing to avoid milk but able to eat yogurts (since the active cultures in yogurts partly break down lactose for us), some able to consume cheese and butter only, and some of us needing to significantly restrict or completely avoid dairy use.
> Our Dietary Goals – as mentioned before and discussed in some length in HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program, one of modern nutritional science’s central controversies today is the desirability of carbohydrates on one hand and fats on the other (especially the saturated animal fats in whole milk and yogurt, butter, and cheese). Owing to this, HumanaNatura first emphasizes areas of greater nutritional science certainty – such as the importance of a whole green diet, moderate proteins, and the avoidance of refined sugars and processed foods – and then our personal exploration and assessment of diets with different fat and carbohydrate levels (measured as a percentage of calories). Therefore, to the extent we tolerate dairy, our personal dietary goals at any point in time, and especially our target fat-carb ratio all will significantly influence the types of dairy products we may consume – again, with high-carb eating goals favoring low-fat milk or yogurt and high-fat targets encouraging cheese and butter.
> Physiological Health – again, to the extent that we tolerate dairy products in one form or another, and to some degree or another, dairy can be quite healthy physiologically – see NCBI Effects of Dairy Products and NCBI Milk and Dairy Products for important research summaries – while potentially being both a fully sustainable food and one with high ecological efficiency as well. Crucially, we make this statement without regard to current, and currently inconclusive, scientific controversies regarding high-carb and high-fat eating generally. And we will again underscore that, in the HumanaNatura approach and in light of the current fat-carb debate, we encourage personalized exploration and assessment of different dietary fat-carb ratios amid an essential context of whole food, vegetable-rich eating. But if we tolerate dairy in an applicable form, dairy products can play a supporting role in this exploration. To underscore this point, we would add that at a nutrient level – and in addition to varying product-specific amounts of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates – dairy can be an excellent source of a number of important micronutrients, including biotin, iodine, magnesium, pantothenic acid, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and vitamin K2 (see Wikipedia Milk/Nutrition and Health).
Dairy & HumanaNatura
For people using HumanaNatura’s Natural Eating technique and OurPlate dietary model, and who tolerate one or more dairy products, addition of these foods – within a green diet and consistent with our personal fat-carb ratio goals – is likely to be at least health neutral and may be health advantageous at a personal level. At the same time, this dairy consumption is potentially quite healthy ecologically, especially if we use dairy products that are sustainably produced (ones which will be labeled as such, or as organic, pastured, and 100% grass-fed).
If you are interested in exploring dairy use within the HumanaNatura Personal Health Program and Natural Eating technique, we would offer the following general guidelines:
- Discuss your dietary plans in advance with your physician or consulting health professional
- Add dairy gradually and stop if you have discomfort or allergic symptoms
- Consume dairy in ways that are consistent with your current fat-carb ratio targets
- Reduce other foods as needed so that newly added dairy does not lead to excessive or unnecessary calories, proteins, fats, or carbohydrates
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given our discussion, HumanaNatura rates the proposal that selective dairy use is personally and ecologically healthy an 8/10 (Strong Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base our rating on the above referenced research supporting the attentive and individualized use of dairy products as part of a health-seeking modern diet. The rating also reflects the idea that modern dairy production can be made fully sustainable and is quite efficient ecologically, and part of beneficial land management strategies to preserve, revitalize, and restore our earth’s natural grasslands.
Importantly, as we have discussed, the rating recognizes that not all people can consume dairy products, but reflects the idea that those who can may be able do so with personal and ecological health gains relative to other foods. And it recognizes the current scientific debate regarding the merits of fat-rich and carb-rich diets, and thus acknowledges, via a lower score, current uncertainty about which dairy foods are healthiest for us, both individually and for people generally.
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
5 thoughts on “Natural Truth: Is Dairy Healthy?”
I found this to be an excellent review of this topic which tends to often be tainted with ideology not grounded on the facts.
The simple fact that the human gastrointestinal system produces lactase beyond infancy ought to quiet down the vociferous purists claiming that it is ‘unnatural’ to consume milk thereafter.
Overall I appreciated the balanced approach of this analysis and the absence of “all-or-nothing” overreaching statements found in many “healthy living” columns online.
I would suggest to put less emphasis on labeling foods as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” since nature is in fact a spectrum of opportunities and risks for a spectrum of life forms surrounded by a spectrum of countless variables. I will happily note that you *did* mention a spectrum somewhere in there! : )
The modern and informed eater ought to see each food as a sum of all its attributes and shortcomings. For instance, Dr. David L. Katz’s NuVal nutritional rating system is a sound attempt to do this quantitatively. I suppose the HumanaNatura way would then equate in the food’s environmental healthfulness factors to such a rating system.
Thanks for this excellent entry!
Thank you, Victor!