Cheese: as American as apple pie.
Americans love their dairy. In a single year, this country’s average resident consumes almost 300 pounds of the stuff; including 36 pounds of cheese, five and a half pounds of butter, 24 pounds of ice cream and around 200 pounds of milk.
Interestingly, dairy is meant only for babies, biologically speaking. More specifically, a mother’s milk is meant exclusively for infants in her same species. Following infancy, most mammals undergo a process called lactase non-persistence in which the body stops producing lactase (the enzyme necessary to break down lactose). By the time this is over, you’re left with lactose-intolerant, adult mammals suffering symptoms of lactose intolerance anytime dairy is consumed.
Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, gas and even vomiting.
About 75 percent of people worldwide today experience lactase non-persistence starting from age 4 or 5. But the truth is, in spite of the minerals therein, dairy itself isn’t actually that good for you. And after hitting an insane peak of consumption around half a century ago, dairy has been in a downward slide for the last three decades (and especially since 2005), as people find healthy alternatives to dairy, and companies make more non-dairy offerings.
But is dairy really that bad? To answer that, let’s take a look at what happens when you give it up.
Milk definitely comes with high doses of minerals like calcium, protein, and vitamin D that are essential for strong bones and bodies. So you can’t just ditch dairy and take on a robust pasta-with-gravy or potato chip habit. The trick is in figuring out healthy alternatives to milk. For starters, your very best source of vitamin D rises and sets each day. If you get out in the sunlight on a regular basis, you’ll be all set in that department, with or without vitamin-D-rich foods. For calcium, look to almonds and almond milk, calcium-fortified soy milks, dark leafy greens like kale and bok choy, and okra. Protein is also abundant in nut butter, quinoa, beans, peas, sprouted-grain bread and lentils.
Dairy products (with the exception of fermented cheeses and yogurts) are loaded with lactose, which is a sugar. And you know what sugars do? They convert to fat in your body. The sugar levels in dairy aren’t going to mess with you the way candy is (whole milk has roughly 4.7 content sugar content, reduced-fat milk 5.3 percent, and low fat 6.5 percent), but they’re high enough to bring your insulin levels up and contribute to weight gain.
If you’re part of the three-quarters of the human population that is lactose intolerant, the gut irritations you’re going through could be preventing your weight loss. Not to mention, dairy is acidic. Too much of this kind of diet creates inflammation (read: bloating) and can work against healthy digestion.
To produce milk, a female mammal has to be pregnant, or has to have recently given birth. And in the dairy industry, these animals are often injected with insulin, progesterone and IGF-1, a growth hormone. Those hormones wind up in the animal’s milk, which humans then drink, and sometimes cause common skin problems such as acne, redness, inflammation, and deterioration.
Some professionals recommend people with skin problems get off dairy for 12 weeks to see how their bodies respond, though your individual mileage will vary.
The downside of being dairy-free is the absence of some of the best forms of good gut bacteria out there: probiotics. These live bacterias and yeasts work with what’s already in your intestines to help with digestion and overall gut health. Yogurts and other fermented dairy products like Parmesan cheese are filled with probiotics; so if you give them up, you need to find another way.
Without dairy, it’s time to cozy up to sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, kombucha, and other pickled foods.
Tryptophan isn’t just for turkeys—milk is loaded with it. The amino acid makes you want to lie on the couch and watch football for the rest of the day, as is the norm on Thanksgiving.
Dairy is also an opiate producer—which calms calves and other mammalian babies, puts adult humans to sleep, and gives us enough of a high to make us crave the stuff (cheese addiction is a real thing). What's more, for many of us, it’s hard for our adult bodies to digest milk. When your body puts out energy and blood for digestion, it’s going to put you into one heck of a food coma, too.
Multiple studies have shown links between milk consumption and increased risk for ovarian and prostate cancer. But it’s not necessarily the milk’s fault. The problem here is in the hormones injected into the pregnant cow. Those additives boost growths of hormones in human bodies that are linked to the propagation of cancer cells.
As with all things, the key to being healthy is moderation.
A crash diet in which you quit dairy cold-turkey has a high potential for failure—and may lead to you eating more dairy than you normally would. The key to going dairy-free (or at least, mostly dairy-free) is to gradually replace your normal foods with alternatives that don’t make you feel like you’re starving or miserable.
Try some simple milk replacements, such as cashew, hemp, rice and soy milks, and mix a vegan butter into the kitchen before you leap from the high dive, and try avoiding cheese at your next happy hour. As you adjust, you can continue cutting and replacing until your diet has corrected itself and you can be dairy-free without the cravings.