Food Pyramid/My Plate: Dairy
As we go through the Food Pyramid/My Plate, we have found that there is a lot of misinformation about what a healthy diet looks like. Most food groups are not as clear cut as you might think! Take the dairy category, for example. Is it an essential part of our diet? Why are so many people lactose intolerant? Are skim milk and fat free yogurt better choices than whole milk and full fat yogurt? Is organic dairy worth paying extra for? Read on to find out!
Low Fat vs. Full Fat Dairy
When you visit the dairy section of the supermarket, what do you reach for? Do claims like “ice cream with half the fat!” appeal to you? It seems intuitive that products that contain less fat would cause you to gain less weight. I grew up in a family that only drank skim milk, always had fat free yogurt in the fridge, and where butter was practically a forbidden food! As I began my journey into food studies, I was shocked to learn that this conventional wisdom might be wrong.
When dairy is made “low fat” or “fat free,” most of the flavor and the nutrients are removed. To make up for this, food manufactures add in sugar, stabilizers, and other additives to make it still look and taste appealing. (Do you remember when skim milk was an unappetizing blue color? This was before dyes were added to make it look white again.) Click Here to Read Our Blog on How Sugar Impacts Your Health
If you have been following my blog you know that SUGAR is what makes us gain weight, much more than dietary fat does. So that “fat free” yogurt with 30 grams of sugar is going to make you gain weight much more than a cup of plain Greek yogurt loaded with fat will!
Yogurt is one of the best choices when it comes to dairy. You have probably heard about the “Probiotics” present in yogurt. These live bacteria or “cultures” are essential to good health. They lower your LDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of colon cancer, suppress harmful bacteria in the intestines, support your immune system, and help your body get rid of toxins. Make sure you check your labels and avoid any added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, chemical preservatives, and artificial sweeteners, flavors or colors. This goes for frozen yogurt too. I always choose plain, organic yogurt and then add in a little pure maple syrup or fruit to sweeten it. Yum!
I’ll be honest, switching from skim milk and margarine to full fat organic milk and organic butter was hard for me at first. It felt wrong! But now that I have retrained myself to know it is better for me, you better believe I slather my toast in real butter. (My husband was especially grateful for this change in our pantry!)
Pasteurized vs. Raw Dairy
Have you ever wondered why some people are lactose intolerant? What is lactose anyway? Lactose is a sugar that is present in milk. In order to digest lactose, we need the enzyme lactase. When milk and dairy products are pasteurized with high heat and homogenized (which emulsifies the fat), many of the enzymes, vitamins, and beneficial bacteria are destroyed. The proteins in the milk are also denatured (damaged) due to the high heat. While it also kills any harmful bacteria that may be present, it does make it much more difficult to digest. (1)
Raw milk contains all of the enzymes that our bodies need in order to digest it and assimilate the nutrients. Once again, nature has thought of everything. Humans drank raw milk for thousands of years, but it is very hard to find these days as most states do not allow the sale of raw milk.
My family purchases milk that is organic, non-homogenized, and from grass-fed cows. Non-homogenized means that the cream floats to the top (like it’s supposed to) so we shake up the milk before using it or pour it directly into our coffee as a creamer. While it is still pasteurized, it is from a farm that uses a low heat pasteurization process over a longer period of time. This ensures that any harmful bacteria are killed while as many of the enzymes and vitamins remain intact as possible.
Conventional vs. Organic Dairy
One of the most important food groups to choose organic is dairy. Conventional dairy cows often have a diet that contains pesticide and herbicide laden feed, genetically modified grains, fish meal that may contain mercury and other toxins, and sometime even “fillers” such as candy or ground up phone books. Remember, what your food eats, you eat! Conventional dairy cows are also fed corn instead of grass (which is their natural diet.) The corn makes the cow’s body much more acidic and drastically reduces the nutritional value of the milk produced.
Conventional cow are also given antibiotics—even when they are not sick—because the living conditions are so poor. The cattle are also given hormones to increase milk supply way beyond what is normal or healthy for the cow (more than 15 times what they would normally produce to nourish their calf) and can cause mastitis and udder infections. These growth hormones have been shown to increase the risk of breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancers in humans. Outlawed in most other countries, these hormones are still used in the United States. (2)
When you purchase organic milk and other organic dairy products, none of these pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones will be present as they are forbidden by the USDA. Another requirement for organic dairy is that the cattle spend much of the year grazing on open pasture, rather than being crammed into a small corral. Cows that eat grass produce 300 to 500 percent more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA.) CLA has wonderful anti-cancer properties and protects against heart disease, diabetes, and increases metabolism which aids in weight loss. (3)
I love seeing cows out grazing in the fields on my drive home from work every day. Cows that live in a low stress environment produce the best milk for us!
Another alternative is goat or sheep’s milk. The proteins in these milks are much smaller than those in cows’ milk and are closer in size to human milk proteins. This is why babies and very young children can have a very difficult time digesting cow’s milk, but may tolerate goat or sheep’s milk.
All that being said, remember to consume dairy in moderation. Dairy is an acid forming food, so make sure to balance it out with plenty of alkalizing fruits and vegetables. Dairy can also cause inflammation. If you suffer from acne, psoriasis, bloating, constipation, arthritis, allergies, an autoimmune disease, heart disease, obesity, or high cholesterol, you may be suffering from chronic body inflammation. Consider avoiding inflammatory foods like dairy and grains and see if your symptoms improve. (4)
While calcium and vitamin D are very important to our health, you CAN get them from other food sources, supplements and sunshine! Foods that are rich in calcium include almonds, kale, spinach, oranges, collard greens, bok choy, sardines, salmon, okra, broccoli, figs, and sesame seeds. Remember that you need vitamin D in order to absorb calcium, so make sure that you are getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine or take a supplement during the colder months of the year.
The closer our food is to what nature provides, the better it is for us. The more we mess with, change, add things to and take things from our food, the farther removed we become from good health. I have never met a cow that produces skim milk, have you? Let’s change the “milk, it does a body good” slogan to “organic, grass-fed, hormone free, antibiotic free milk with no added sugar or other food chemicals from happy cows does a body good!” Doesn’t quite roll of the tongue the same, but you get what I mean!