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Diet & Nutrition

Dairy: Fact & Fiction

Wondering if it's healthy to eat dairy? Our nutrition expert separates the fact from fiction.

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It’s really impossible to jump into a discussion of dairy without first talking about cows.

Once upon a time, cows grazed on grass and lived on sprawling pastures, and their owners treated them humanely. Chickens ran around pecking at worms, cows grazed peacefully on pasture, eggs were plucked from the hens’ nests at dawn, roosters would crow, and the owner’s son would dutifully milk the cows every morning.

Today? Not so much. In the modern factory farm, cows are milk-and-beef production machines that exist to turn corn and grain—all of it genetically modified, by the way—into milk and meat as quickly as possible. The natural food of cows is grass, not genetically modified grain. A concentrated diet of corn and grain gives cows acidosis, which can lead to a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to a host of horrible feedlot diseases. Cattle rarely manage to live on these diets for more than 150 days.

With intensive production schedules (they don’t call them “factory” farms for nothing), modern dairy cows commonly produce many times the number of pounds of milk they would produce in nature. Growth hormones and unnatural milking schedules cause dairy cows’ udders to become painful, heavy, and infected. To prevent this, factory-farmed cows are routinely given large doses of antibiotics, the residue of which—along with that of the steroids and growth hormones they’re given—invariably wind up in the milk and meat they produce. The antibiotics serve a double purpose—they also fatten the cattle up.

If you think all those hormones and antibiotics don’t have any impact on your health, think again. One study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology demonstrated a significant association between milk drinking and teenage acne. Researchers suggested that the most likely explanation was the presence of hormones and “bioactive molecules” in the milk.

Maybe you’ve guessed by now that I’m not a huge fan of milk. At least not the homogenized, pasteurized kind you get in supermarkets. What I am a fan of is raw, organic, unpasteurized, nonhomogenized milk from grass-fed cows. (Full disclosure: I drink a quart of cold, raw, whole-fat milk every week, and they’ll pry it from my cold dead hands!)

Dairy & Calcium

The dairy industry has long promoted the notion that “milk builds strong bones.” But a research review, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that osteoporotic bone fracture rates are highest in countries that consume the most dairy. Could there be other factors at work here? Sure. But the firm connection between more milk drinking and stronger bones is far from established, much as dairy-industry-supported scientists would like you to believe.

In fact, the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed almost 78,000 nurses over 12 years, concluded that “data do not support the hypothesis that higher consumption of milk or other food sources of calcium by adult women protects against hip or forearm fractures.”

Does Dairy Help With Weight Loss?

Another thing dairy-industry-supported scientists would like you to believe is that eating dairy helps you lose weight. A spate of studies by Michael Zimmer, PhD, widely publicized by the dairy industry, would seem to indicate just that.

Until you dig a little deeper. See, if you’re not getting enough calcium, it makes it harder to lose weight. So dairy products companies produced commercials showing fit women eating sugar-loaded containers of yogurt while a voiceover extols the virtues of calcium in dairy for losing weight.

They’re partly right—if you’re calcium- deficient, getting more calcium will indeed even the weight-loss playing field for you. But they left out this part, hoping you wouldn’t notice: adding more calcium to a diet that has enough does exactly nothing for your weight-loss efforts. Nothing.

Dairy As a Food Intolerance

At least 65 percent of the human population is lactose intolerant after infancy, and in some populations—like people of East Asian descent—the percentage is higher than 90 percent. Dairy is considered one of the most common food intolerances, often causing symptoms like bloat, lack of energy, or the inability to lose weight. But even those who are lactose intolerant may be able to tolerate some dairy products like naturally fermented yogurt or kefir, or a good whey protein powder from grass-fed cows.


Sheep or goat dairy. Dairy derived from sheep or goats is less likely to be factory farmed, so their milk (and cheese) may contain a lot fewer drugs and antibiotics.

Yogurt. Look for unsweetened, full-fat Greek yogurt with the “Live and Active Cultures” (LAC) seal, which signals that the yogurt contains at least 100 million cultures per gram of yogurt at the time of manufacture and after pasteurization. (Note: Greek yogurt contains less calcium, but more protein and fewer carbs than regular yogurt. I say, “So what?” There are plenty of other sources of calcium,
like sardines and green vegetables. You don’t need to get your calcium just from dairy products.)

Grass-fed butter and ghee. Butter contains all fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. Butter also contains conjugated linolenic acid (CLA), a healthy fat that has demonstrated anticancer benefits. Ghee is clarified butter (basically, butter with the milk solids removed), so it’s perfect for dairy-intolerant folks.

Raw dairy. Natural, raw, grass-fed cow’s milk is likely to be richer in healthy fats like omega-3s and CLA.

Whey protein. Though whey is technically a dairy product, those with milk
sensitivities are often able to tolerate
high-quality whey protein with no problems.
Unlike soy protein, which is low in methionine, whey protein contains all the amino acids the body needs.

Cheese. Unfortunately, “cheese” covers an awful lot of territory, from the raw and unpasteurized milk of sheep and goats to processed “cheese foods.” Huge emphasis here: Consider the source.

A Word About Dairy Fat

I don’t believe that low-fat and 2% dairy products are healthier. These products have more sugar than the originals, and it’s turning out that the original was probably better for us all along. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with the highest circulating levels of a fatty acid found only in whole-fat dairy had a 60 percent lower incidence of diabetes.