Dairy Free Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
When I was a young girl, we had compulsory milk drinking every day at school before classes commenced. This was a government initiative to help kids get calcium and possibly ensure that we had some sort of breakfast so we could be more attentive in class.
I’m not sure why, but we had to drink the milk, hot or cold, no matter what. In summer, the milk was warm, smelly, and non-refrigerated. I hated it. In winter, it was icy cold and made me feel chilled to the bone.
Not that I didn’t mind drinking milk back in those days – but normally I had it with warm porridge in winter and nice and cold in summer with my coco pops, or I drank it with hot or cold chocolate. Oh, those were the days…but were they?
Little did I know that dairy products were probably the cause of my monthly tonsillitis or ear infections, tummy pains, irregular bowel movements, mucous throat and sinus clogged head that gave me daily headaches and possibly the frequently nose bleeds.
If I or my parents had known better, I could have saved myself a lot of pain and misery from visiting the doctor and taking loads of antibiotics that set me up for all kinds of digestive and immune stress. I may have even saved my poor appendix from near rupture.
Now I do know better, and I have seen over the last 28+ years in clinic, the changes in people’s health by removing dairy from their diet.
From my observations it appears that even if someone doesn’t have an intolerance or allergy to dairy products, their health symptoms generally improve by removing dairy from their diet, even if it is up until they get better. Having said that, many clients who went back to dairy found that their symptoms returned, so they decided to go dairy free permanently to feel better overall.
The questions that often come up in clinic are:
- “Why go dairy-free?”
- “What are the benefits of dairy free eating?”
- “Is it just about lactose intolerance, as I can buy lactose free milk?”
- “If I stop eating dairy products, how do I get enough calcium?”
From my experience with more than 16,000 clients and my own research, I will endeavour to answer these questions and more in this article, but first:
Something doesn’t seem to make sense…
On average, cattle are about 11 times heavier than humans in westernised countries. Calves are fed milk which has about twice the protein content of human milk, so calves can grow quickly. Whereas infants need less protein and more fat to develop their more complex brain and nerve systems.
Calves are weaned around 3 to 8 months of age at up to one quarter of their mature body weight. Then they go and eat grass and continue to grow strong bones from calcium derived from…grass!
Infants are normally weaned from mother’s milk from six months to two years. But are they really weaned? Because the majority are then fed dairy products which they continue to consume for many years, and often for the rest of their lives. Cattle don’t.
The consumption of dairy products in westernised countries is massive. Milk, cheese, ice-cream, yoghurt, butter, frozen dairy products, condensed and evaporated milk, and dry dairy products have become staples of our diet.
We pasteurise milk, to protect us from harmful bacteria. Yet pasteurisation denatures milk by killing the beneficial bacteria (probiotics), destroying the lactase enzyme which helps us to digest lactose, and damaging proteins and nutrients.
So after our children are weaned, we feed them a product designed for an animal that grows 11 times larger than us, after we have denatured that product.
Is this not ironic, particularly when I have seen quite clearly the damage that dairy products have done to the health of so many people?
‘Dairy is nature’s perfect food — but only if you’re a calf.’ Dr Mark Hyman.
Healthy clear skin
The exact link to skin eruptions and dairy is not known and there may be a few reasons, but what I can say from my experience is that dairy can cause inflammation and congest the digestive system in many people. Milk contains hormones (from the cow) that can upset our delicate balance and this, for many people, leads to skin problems. An increasing number of dermatologists now recommend a dairy-free diet as part of the treatment for acne, skin rashes, dermatitis, and eczema.
Preventing dairy reactions
Milk allergy is real. Dairy repeatedly ranks high in prevalence on the top eight food allergen list in many countries. The severity of milk allergy ranges from life-threatening (anaphylaxis) to relatively mild (hives). Researchers have discovered other pathways in which milk can cause an immune response.
Food Protein Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (FPIOS) and Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE) are two types of allergic conditions commonly linked to dairy that affect the gastrointestinal tract and may have a delayed reaction, which makes them difficult to pick up. Milk allergy can appear at any time in life, but it is thought that the prevalence is higher in infants and young children, however, EoE is being diagnosed in an increasing number of adults.
I feel that adults, even though they may have ‘grown out’ of their dairy allergy, still have the allergy or intolerance. But the body is using its immune system to compensate and the allergy shows up in other ways, such as auto-immune diseases and chronic inflammation – but this is yet to be proven scientifically.
Lactose intolerance alone creates a myriad of digestive symptoms in millions of people, including stomach pain, cramps, bloating, flatulence (gas), diarrhea and nausea. It has been estimated that 70% of the world’s population has some degree of lactose intolerance.
After weaning, we no longer need to be able to digest mum’s milk so we naturally begin losing the lactase enzyme that helps to digest the lactose in milk. Dairy has also been labelled as a key trigger in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and various other digestive conditions, from the EoE and FPIES mentioned above to chronic constipation.
For your baby
Infant dairy milk allergy is a real concern for millions of parents, but the need to be dairy-free isn’t restricted to the little ones. Paediatricians often recommend to the breastfeeding mums of milk-allergic babies to go completely off dairy. It is thought that milk protein consumed by the mother passes to her little one via her own milk supply. Interestingly, due to the health benefits they enjoy, many mums choose to remain dairy-free even after breastfeeding.
It is common for me to see posts saying, ‘I went dairy-free, with no other changes in my diet or lifestyle, and I lost 15 pounds.’ Why? Because with so much fat and calories in dairy it makes sense. But more than that, if your digestive system becomes more efficient then you may lose weight because you are healthier.
Alternatively, if you are underweight you may gain weight because you can absorb your nutrients better after your gut has healed from the effects of dairy on your digestive system.
Many research studies have shown links between dairy intake and several hormone-stimulated cancers. Strong links have been found between dairy consumption and ovarian and prostate cancers. One study showed that women who drank one or more serves of milk a day had a 69% higher risk of ovarian cancer when compared to women who had three or less serves a month. Another study showed that men with high dairy intake were 2.2 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than men with the lowest intake of dairy foods.
There is a large body of science that directly combats the promoted connection between dairy milk and bone health. According to a Harvard study of approximately 78,000 female nurses:
Women who consumed greater amounts of calcium from dairy foods had a significantly increased risk of hip fractures, while no increase in fracture risk was observed for the same levels of calcium intake from non-dairy sources.
Further findings and population reviews have shown that the countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis are also the largest consumers of dairy products.
Improved environmental impact of going dairy-free
Milk production has been shown to have a substantial footprint on air quality from greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions; adversely affect water resources from the high usage of water and the run-off of fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and pathogens; adversely affect soil quality and surrounding ecosystems from excess land use, cropping practices, fertilizers and pesticide use.
Reduces exposure to added antibiotics and hormones
To keep dairy herds healthy, antibiotics are given to cows to help prevent infection, but much concern has been raised over increased antibiotic resistance in humans from consumption of antibiotics through the milk supply.
Hormones found in cow’s milk include Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a natural occurring hormone in cows that stimulates the production IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1). Often there is a synthetic version, called rBGH, used in conventional dairy farming to help stimulate milk production, which also increases the levels of IGF-1.
Consumption of cow’s milk can increase the serum level of IGF-1 in us by 10%, which is not good, as higher levels of IGF-1 in humans have been linked to a significant increase in the risk of prostate, colon, lung, and breast cancers. Even organic milk still contains the naturally occurring IGF-1.
Fortunately, dairy-free milk alternatives do not contain added antibiotics or hormones or have any IGF-1 since they are plant-based.
While it’s scientifically unclear whether dairy triggers sinus problems, many people swear that dairy products promote the formation of mucus and worsen congestion. I’m one of them and many of my clients who eliminated dairy from their diet have seen a huge improvement in their symptoms. Sometimes you need to first heal the gut, so ask your practitioner about ‘leaky gut’ and find out more in this article, the Diet for Leaky Gut.
Healthy energy levels
When someone suffers from digestive problems, inflammation, or sinus issues, their energy level drops as their immune system uses up loads of energy trying to deal with the problem. By improving your health by going off dairy you will naturally give yourself a boost of energy.
- Dairy can affect your body’s estrogen production by introducing artificial growth hormones. Most dairy cows are injected with genetically modified growth hormone to produce more milk than they would naturally – this is what you consume in your morning latte or on your breakfast.
- Dairy can create inflammation in the intestinal tract which can hinder your fertility, disrupt ovulation, and create irregular cycles.
- Dairy often contains antibiotics which can negatively impact your microbiome to prevent effective estrogen metabolism and negatively impact your own immunity.
- Dairy cows are often fed with GMO soy and corn which can set you up for estrogen excess. GMOs are endocrine disruptors.
- Dairy depletes your magnesium stores which affects your pituitary and adrenal glands.
Helping to resolve health imbalance mysteries
Whether backed by research or thousands of clinic success stories, many people are squashing daily headaches, migraines, rashes, stuffy sinuses, chronic infections, arthritis pain, and more when they cut out all dairy products. Huge improvements in behavioural issues have been observed in people with conditions like ADD, ADHD and other autistic spectrum disorders when dairy (as well as gluten) was eliminated from diets.
Lactose is the milk sugar that is generally supposed to be digested by an enzyme in the body known as lactase. Lactase is produced in the bodies of babies so they can digest breast milk which also contains lactose.
However, some people don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase which can then lead to a condition known as lactose intolerance where the milk sugar is not properly digested. This can occur even while breast feeding but can be worse if the mother consumes dairy products.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance such as nausea, diarrhea, abdominal bloating, cramps, and gas/flatulence, can start anywhere from ½ hr to 2hrs after eating dairy products.
The protein part of milk is called casein and is often referred to as a slow-acting protein because the body takes longer to digest it. There are many people who cannot tolerate casein, which usually results in symptoms such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.
Casein allergies can also exist and is much more serious because an allergy is an immune system response. Symptoms of casein allergy can include not only the usual digestive upsets but also symptoms such as hives, itching, wheezing and constriction of airways, facial flushing, and may even cause an anaphylactic reaction.
Casomorphins are fragments of protein from the digestion of the milk protein, casein. Casomorphins have an opioid effect on the body. That’s right – opioid. Dependence on opioids can develop with ongoing use, leading to withdrawal symptoms when you give them up and that’s why it can be so difficult to give up eating cheese and your other favourite dairy protein foods.
But why are opiates in milk? Dr Neal Barnard, from the ‘Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’ says, “It appears that the opiates from mother’s milk produces a calming effect on the infant and, in fact, may be responsible for a good measure of the mother-infant bond”. Of course, the amount of opiate in dairy is nothing like the levels in drugs like opium or morphine etc, but it is still addictive.
The casomorphins explain why so many love cheese and why it is hard to give up. It’s the milk sugar (lactose), milk protein (casein), and the type of fat content that make it unhealthy for you and is thought to trigger IGF-1 in the body, which is the reason it is now being strongly linked to several cancers.
When casein breaks down in our digestive system it produces the peptide casomorphin which subsequently releases histamine, which may explain why so many people are allergic to dairy products worldwide.
Now you may think, ‘Well that’s all very good, but what about calcium? Aren’t I supposed to eat dairy products to keep my calcium levels up for strong healthy bones?’ The marketing for dairy foods certainly use this as a major motivator.
Milk and its derivatives like ‘milk solids’ and ‘whey powder’ can make food taste good and do contain calcium. However, the calcium found in dairy foods is in the wrong form for easy absorption by the body. That’s why we are told that we need to eat so many serves a day to get the calcium needed.
But that also equates to a lot of calories, cholesterol, and fat that we may not need, rather than consume other more nutrient dense foods that have more bio-available calcium in them – like vegetables.
To reduce fats people often switch to low fat varieties, but this delivers even more lactose (sugar). Skim milk and low-fat milk products are usually supplemented with additional milk solids, sugars, and other derivatives to give them substance and make them taste better.
There are so many other sources of calcium from foods such as green leafy vegetables, fish with bones like canned salmon and white bait, seaweeds, hulled sesame seeds (Tahini), all of which are more bio-available (absorbable) than dairy calcium.
Why don’t traditional Chinese have osteoporosis?
For thousands of years there was never any milk or dairy foods in the traditional Chinese diet. But according to the ‘three serves of dairy a day’ rule, shouldn’t all those Chinese have been suffering from osteoporosis?
Chinese who follow a traditional diet of fish, vegetables and rice have low levels of cholesterol and heart disease and do not suffer from any noticeable calcium deficiency or osteoporosis. Chinese who have changed over to a western lifestyle and consume dairy among other processed foods, fats and sugars are the ones who develop osteoporosis, cholesterol, and heart disease.
Westerners who consume an abundance of dairy foods have the highest levels of osteoporosis and other chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
Clinical studies have shown that consuming dairy products at the recommended level of three serves a day does not reliably prevent osteoporosis and can even contribute to bone density loss. A study in 1992 showed that women on dairy-rich diets had a higher rate of bone fracture from osteoporosis that those on a dairy-free diet.
How do we lose & gain calcium?
Prevention of osteoporosis is not just a matter of eating calcium-rich foods, as the calcium needs to be in a form that is easily absorbed, and we also need to be aware of the factors that cause calcium loss.
An acidic diet of processed refined foods will cause the leaching of calcium from the bones to help keep the blood alkaline. You can read more about this in my article about the Alkaline Diet.
Leaky Gut is another cause of calcium loss as it causes nutrients to leave the body before absorption. For more info, go to the Diet for Leaky Gut.
Calcium can also be leached out by eating large amounts of animal protein (particularly the grain fed variety), caffeine, sodium salt, smoking, and physical inactivity.
Weight bearing exercise (not weight training, but weight on our joints, like walking, trampolining etc) is how our body knows to lay down more calcium in the bones to strengthen them against the jarring effects of movement.
When people decide to go dairy free they often feel concerned about what to replace dairy products with. These days we have so many options available that it is easy to make the transition. Here are some tips…
There are plenty of other options than cow’s milk. If you still want to enjoy milk with cereal, coffee, or in a glass, try one of the many nut milks. Sometimes you see them listed as ‘mylk’.
- Almond mylk
- Hazelnut mylk
- Cashew mylk
- Brazil nut mylk
- Rice milk
- Quinoa milk
- Coconut milk
Coconut milk and Brazil nut milk both go well in coffee, but don’t make the brew too hot or the mylk can split away from the coffee or tea and make it look curdled. Stirring generally remixes it.
If you like a sweet treat occasionally, you can also use coconut milk to make dairy-free ice cream or dark chocolate treats. You can use any of the nut or seed mylks where you would normally use dairy milk.
Cooking with butter alternatives
Instead of butter, try cooking with coconut oil, avocado oil, grape seed oil or olive oil. Each has powerful nutrients that benefit the body in many ways.
Spreads and toppings
Some other great spreads and toppings to replace butter and cheese include:
- Nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia). If you mix hazelnut meal with cacao and maple syrup you will create a tasty chocolate spread…that’s perhaps a little too yummy!
- Avocado is great for spreading on savoury meals instead of butter
- Hummus (chickpea dip) is great for putting on gluten free wraps
- Egg and oil aioli is great as a spread
- Coconut oil, especially when kept cool and firm, is great as a butter alternative
Other dairy alternatives
You can make or buy other dairy alternatives such as coconut or other nut milk or creams, ice-creams, yoghurts, and kefir. Cashew cheese is popular, as is cashew sour cream.
Plan ahead for dairy free dining
As you bring dairy-free replacements into your life you’ll find it’s easy to find alternatives options with a little planning. Before heading out to a restaurant, look at the menu options online and even call to find out what is suitable. You will often find that they will make your favourite dish without dairy or use coconut milk. Most restaurants are happy to help to keep you coming back.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client names and identifying information changed
Samuel came to me with a few issues. He had terrible problems with his blocked and painful sinuses, along with alternating constipation and diarrhoea, tummy pains, cramps, headaches, nausea, and felt run down most of the time.
Samuel already had quite a few allergy tests and was allergic to dust mites, certain pollens, and animal fur. His food allergy tests were clear, which didn’t surprise me as I had seen many people test negative for allergies, but they weren’t tested for intolerances.
He was told to avoid his allergens where possible, but that was about it. Avoidance was tricky for him because he lived in an old house with old carpets that would have heaps of dust mites, plus he had a cat.
Samuel wanted to stay in the house because the rent was cheap and he loved the location, so I suggested to get the carpets and his mattress professionally treated for dust mites and to remove the carpet from his bedroom, with the owner’s permission.
I also recommended to change his pillows to new hypoallergenic ones and to wash his bedding by adding some eucalyptus oil to the detergent. I also suggested to keep the cat away from his face and preferably keep her outside during the day, and regularly vacuum the floors to remove cat hair.
He made the changes and told me that the floorboards in his bedroom (which were previously under the carpet) looked good after coating with natural oils and he bought some washable mats that he put next to the bed. These measures reduced his allergenic load to a degree, but he still had all his symptoms so then we needed to heal his gut issues.
Tests revealed that Samuel had leaky gut so I advised him to initially go off all grains, gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, caffeine and fruit to allow his immune system time to heal, plus he was prescribed daily bone broth soups and probiotics.
Along with the food changes Samuel was prescribed some zinc and vitamin D as his levels tested low. Zinc and vitamin D are crucial for a good immune system.
But before he started these supplements, Samuel had noticed a dramatic reduction in his sinus problems, which reduced his headaches and fatigue, just from the food changes. Even though he had more gut healing to do, it was great to see these improvements solely from the changes to his diet.
As Samuel’s gut healed, so did the other symptoms, and within 12 weeks all of Samuel’s symptoms had cleared. It seemed that he could even tolerate his cat better and didn’t sneeze from the pollens when he went into the garden.
Later, we re-challenged (re-introduced one at a time) the foods that he had previously omitted from his diet, and discovered he was reactive to dairy products and foods containing gluten.
Now that Samuels gut had healed he was able to tolerate many foods that would normally aggravate him, but he knew it was best to stay off the gluten foods and dairy. Every now and then he broke his diet, only to pay for it for the next few days with clogged sinuses, headaches, and fatigue.
It takes 14 days to clear dairy from your system and up to two years to fully clear gluten damage from your body. I reminded him that even occasional gluten exposure would set back his full healing, so if he ate gluten occasionally, he would keep putting back the two-year period to fully clear his body.