One thing I love about the Paleo movement is a willingness to challenge the status quo. A few decades ago, people of Paleo were universally against dairy. Today, the attitude towards dairy is undergoing a transformation. Still, the official word on dairy is a luke-warm maybe rather than the resounding yes I think it deserves to be. I believe many of us can add dairy into our diet not just for good health, but also to more accurately reproduce a true Paleolithic era diet.
From the anti-dairy camp
There’s a vast volume of published literature on the harms of casein, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Each one of these components has been shown, individually in animal studies, to be associated with health harms. So, the anti-dairy crowd asserts, if each individual component might be a little bit bad, just imagine how bad all three are in combination!
From the pro-dairy camp
None of the animal studies performed by members of the anti-dairy camp use milk in its natural state. Research comparing whole, fresh milk to processed (pasteurized/homogenized, or dehydrated and reconstituted) shows that animals fed processed milk develop osteoporotic bones, enlarged and fatty livers and hearts, whereas the animals fed fresh milk do not. They conclude that raw milk and processed milk are inherently different and products and it follows that they would have different health effects. This is why they recommend consuming unprocessed dairy, in the form of fresh milk, cream, butter, homemade kefir, or raw milk cheese. (Yoghurt is typically made with pasteurized milk.)
We should hesitate before giving any weight to studies that use—rather than actual whole milk—processed and refined milk components. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, the whole food-effect. Milk is a whole food and saturated fat, cholesterol, and casein are not. We know that nutrients in isolation from their food source can actually be harmful. One example is calcium, which has been associated with higher risk of heart attacks http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21505219 when consumed as a supplement but not when calcium comes from whole foods, including dairy.
Second, the extraction-effect. Extracting and isolating components from milk changes their molecular structure in ways that appear to generate toxins. This kind of alteration upon extraction is the reason sunflower oil is harmful (the PUFAs have been distorted by heat and bleaching agents to generated toxic trans fats), while whole sunflower seeds, especially when consumed raw (or soaked and gently dried) are good for us. This extraction-effect is probably why there’s an abundance of research showing that casein can be harmful.
Casein undergoes significant changes when it’s extracted from fluid suspension as a colloid in milk and transformed to a dehydrated powder. Within the hidden world of milk exists a microcosm of minuscule living micro-organs all working synergistically to create an intended effect: Provide optimal nourishment to a newborn mammal. Disrupting that micro-ecology in any way impairs milk’s ability to serve its nutrient-giving function.
We don’t typically think of milk as being an ecology with a purpose, but it really is. Seen this way it makes perfect sense why dehydration and other processing can be injurious.
We’ve all seen movies of millions of spermatozoa wriggling across a highly magnified slide of glass. And we know that each of those ambitious tadpoles carries the sacred message of life encoded in its packet of DNA. Here again, we have a micro-ecology with a purpose, in this case fertilization with a complete, intact set of haploid chromosomes. Do you suppose that one might lower their chances of having a healthy baby if, prior to introduction, the spermatozoa had been dehydrated to a chalky white powder, stored for a few months at room temperature, and then reconstituted?
Because the studies the anti-dairy crowd are so fond of citing do not use real milk but rather reconstituted components, for this reason, those studies have very little to tell us about the potential benefits or harms of real milk. If they want to learn more about real milk, they should start studying real milk.
Since not all of us have access to fresh milk, I’m going to take a brief moment to comment on whether or not pasteurized dairy is better than none. There are studies suggesting pasteurized milk leads to abnormal growth. However these studies should be interpreted with caution because they compared animals only the two milks, and no other food what so ever–hardly a real life comparison. More relevant to the question of can pasteurized milk contribute to an otherwise balanced diet are some depression-era studies on orphan boys who were fed pasteruized milk as part of a standard orphanage diet (who knows how well balanced) versus boys denied the milk and given extra helpings of something else. The boys who got the milk grew taller than the boys who did not, indicating that pasteurized milk may be far better than no milk. (From Third Annual Raw Milk Conference)
The Flawed Science of Nutritionism
Dairy products are not the only foods subject to controversy. One can find arguments both for and against the consumption of just about everything in the grocery store, be it carrots, crucifers, crackers—or cheese.
Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto eloquently describes how deeply the science of nutrition is flawed, and coins the pejorative term nutritionism to convey the idea that most nutrition science is not worthy of being considered an honest-to-goodness, objective science. It’s flaws often stem from the fact that research is funded by food manufacturers striving to find a way to call their processed products healthy. He advises extreme caution in interpreting most nutrition-related research and I think that’s wise.
Given that the bulk of the research on dairy is done using processed milk components, no wonder the Paleo movement is struggling to interpret the evidence. I’d like to reframe the argument from the starting point of good old fashioned common sense.
Deciding who to believe: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
Carl Sagan and other scientists throughout history lay difficult arguments to rest by reminding us that the burden of scientific proof should rest with the side making the most extraordinary claims. From where I sit, it appears the more extraordinary claims are emerging from the anti-dairy camp.
For example, we know milk is good for babies. I cannot think of a more natural, wholesome image than a mother nursing her child. The anti-dairy folks suggest, however, that sometime between infancy and adulthood, a radical physiologic change occurs, one that re-orders this healthful relationship to dairy into one of antagonism. At a certain age, milk goes from being entirely healthy to not so much. If they are right about this, then milk would be the only food I’ve heard of that goes from good for us to bad for us based solely on our age.
If you are fond of dairy, understand that its not your job to prove a negative: This radial physiologic change does not take place. If the anti-dairy folks produce compelling evidence that it does, I’m sure they’ll let us know.
Before anyone jumps in to cite lactose intolerance, which is more common as we age, as an example of an age-related physiologic change let me put a stop to that. Lactase is an enzyme in the intestinal wall that enables us to digest the most abundant milk sugar, lactose. As with any enzyme in your body, lack of use will down-regulate it, and some people are genetically more prone to having this enzyme shut down than others. But even people with lactose intolerance can enjoy the wide world of fermented (yoghurt and cheeses) and other reduced-lactose dairy (butter and cream). In many areas of the world, dairy is drunk fresh only by young children, and everyone else consumes dairy only after some kind of fermentation. This is likely the reason lactase genes tend to shut down as people get older.
If milk is good does that mean its also Paleo?
That is the question we’ll consider in part 2, of Is Dairy Paleo, coming out next!