Is Dairy Free Right for Me?


It seems like there’s plenty of hubbub these days about whether or not you should eat dairy. Are you lactose intolerant? Do you have a casein sensitivity? What is whey anyway? Why is butter okay, but milk isn’t? Where will I get my calcium if I don’t drink milk? A doctor has never told me not to eat dairy so I must be fine! Most of us don’t think twice about grabbing a glass of milk, so let’s investigate why it might not be the best choice for you.

You might be sensitive. Do you notice that you need to run to the bathroom shortly after that bowl of ice cream? Maybe you experience allergy flare ups and sinus congestion. Perhaps you’ve tried every cream and medication under the sun for your acne but your skin just doesn’t clear up. These, and other symptoms including headaches and migraines, could be indicators that you’re sensitive to dairy products. Most people are familiar lactose, and we probably all know someone who doesn’t tolerate lactose well. You might have been diagnosed with lactose intolerance as a kid and are able to get away with drinking lactose-free milk. However, lactose isn’t the whole story. Many people have a hard time digesting dairy because of casein. Casein is a protein (whey is another, but is more easily digested than casein) found in dairy products that is difficult to digest and can cause all kinds of inflammatory reactions.

So how will you know whether lactose or casein is causing an inflammatory reaction in your body? Many people do not realize dairy is a problem for them until they cut it out for a few weeks. When we work with clients to determine whether there’s a dairy (or other food) sensitivity, we ask that they avoid the target food completely for 4 weeks. That means skipping the milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, and heavy whipping cream for 28 days! We usually let clients continue using butter (or ghee) since it has essentially no casein or lactose—it’s pure fat and rarely causes problems for people. After about a month of no dairy, we have people incorporate it back into their diet (3 servings per day for 3 days) and pay attention to how they feel. Many clients are SHOCKED to discover that the yucky congestion, stomach problems, and acne return immediately!

What to do about it: Find out if you have a sensitivity by taking on our month-of-no-dairy challenge. If you notice adverse symptoms while incorporating dairy after a month of abstaining, it’s pretty safe to say you have a dairy sensitivity. Once you know this about yourself, it’s a good idea to stay away from dairy products as much as possible. Some clients find they tolerate high fat dairy products like sour cream, crème fraîche, cream cheese, and butter, but you’ll need to try them out for yourself to see what your body says. This is a chance for you to get creative and find dairy substitutions for your favorite recipes, such as using coconut milk or avocados. Or, if that seems overwhelming, you can work with one of our coaches to help you get used to your new dairy free lifestyle.

What’s so bad about milk? Well, lots of things. For one, quality definitely matters when it comes to food, including milk. Most conventionally raised cows (think popular brands like Kemps, Land’O Lakes, Great Value, etc.) are kept confined in a small area, fed a diet that they are not accustomed to eating (cows eat grass, not corn!) [and I’ve even heard claims of leftover holiday candy, orange peels, and whatever they can scrape up from the bottom of a chicken coop], and eventually find themselves with weakened immune systems. Just like in humans, a weakened immune system can lead to cow sickness. To prevent this, many farmers add antibiotics to their chow, along with hormones necessary for milk production. As you know, we recommend consuming full fat dairy products if you’re going to have them at all. This means, if you’re purchasing conventional milk, you’re getting higher than normal levels of these contaminants. Not good.

What to do about it: Do your best to pick up the highest quality milk you can find—the closer to the teat, the better, so to speak. Raw, grass-fed, organic, whole milk is the gold standard. Do your best to find something close to this. There are many local farmers who will sell you some high quality dairy if you head out to their farms. Check out Eat Wild or Local Harvest to find a farmer near you! Otherwise, make the best selection from what your co-op or grocery store offers. Note: local laws may prevent sales of raw milk — in that case, find something grass fed and/or organic.

Doesn’t drinking skim milk and eating low fat yogurt help me lose weight? Nope. In fact, it might even make it harder for you to lose weight. Whether you are sensitive to dairy or not, consuming a lot of dairy products will cause your body to produce more insulin, which as you know, causes you to store more body fat. We see clients with stalled weight loss jump-start their fat loss by cutting out most dairy products as described above.

Where will I get my calcium? Since dairy is so difficult to digest, many people don’t actually absorb much of the calcium contained in it. We recommend focusing on healing the gut by reducing inflammation (cutting out processed foods, trans fats, sugar, and dairy if it’s inflammatory for you!) and improving your microbiome with a high quality probiotic supplement and L-Glutamine. A healthy intestinal tract will allow you to absorb calcium from the other foods you eat like dark green veggies and almonds.

What to do about it: Learn what works for your body; if you don’t try it, you’ll never know! We love working with clients to help them discover what foods allow them to feel the best they can while maintaining a healthy weight (or while they lose weight if that’s a goal). You might find that you tolerate dairy just fine (no trips to the bathroom or foggy brain) but you lose weight more quickly without all the cheese and yogurt. If this is the case for you, consider your goals. Your food is ALWAYS your choice. If you feel great eating some dairy products, enjoy them, and make sure they are the highest quality you can find!

Try skipping dairy for a few weeks and see how you feel! It can’t hurt and it might help! If you need guidance with this process, check out our post How to Be Dairy Free and don’t hesitate to contact our team to set up an appointment with one of our expert dietitian coaches.

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