With so many milk alternatives available these days, the question of giving up dairy is a weighted but important one.
By Naila Francis
Jeanne Voronin loved her milk. Even as a little girl, she’d preferred it to soda.
But when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as an adult and began experiencing a host of health issues related to it, she decided to see a nutritionist, who, among many recommendations, suggested eliminating dairy from her diet.
“It was hard,” says Voronin, of Doylestown. “I felt like I had to go to Milk Anonymous.”
Though she admits to still indulging in the occasional piece of cheese, she hasn’t touched milk for about a year. And in that time, her seasonal and pet allergies, as well as her asthma, have been more manageable.
“I had very bad asthma,” says Voronin, who hasn’t had a major attack since the one that sent her to the emergency room just before she stopped drinking milk. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a cold, and I would get one absolutely faithfully several times a year, and my energy level also came back.”
Voronin worked with certified holistic nutrition and health counselor Crystal Connor of Your Intuitive Appetite to improve her diet. And while Connor notes that giving up milk may not be for everyone, she has her own experience with how America’s love affair with dairy can wreak havoc on the body.
Her 9-year-old son Brayden had been plagued with various ailments from chronic sinus infections to asthma and allergies since he was an infant. Around age 5, when a particularly confounding spell had him vomiting randomly and suffering from frequent headaches — and after years of surgeries, tests and visits to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — she began eliminating certain foods from his diet to determine any possible allergies.
“We figured out it was most likely dairy and once we removed that — voila! — he was a new child,” says Connor, who lives in Doylestown and also works with Azzatori Chiropractic Center, the Central Bucks Family YMCA and other local organizations. “He’s not on a drop of medication. He does not have asthma anymore. He now runs up and down a field and plays soccer and sports like other kids and hasn’t touched an inhaler in three years.”
Brayden also no longer suffers from allergies and it’s been three years since he’s had a sinus infection.
“I don’t want to say that dairy is bad for you because surely there are enough studies that would prove me wrong, but your body, your quality of life, always improves when you remove dairy, hands down,” says Connor. “You don’t need to have a dairy beverage to make your meal wholesome.”
And these days, with so many dairy alternatives on the market, from soy and hemp to almond and rice milks, more people seem to be opting out of the primary food group.
But while lactose intolerance and dairy allergies for years have fueled that change, the elimination and/or switch to an alternative is also being driven by other considerations. Ethical and compassionate concern for the treatment of animals, worries about the impact of the dairy industry on the environment and a growing awareness of the greater health benefits of a diet low in animal products are all among the reasons for embracing a dairy-free lifestyle.
“Lactose intolerance is still a pretty big reason,” says Kathryn Friedman, a certified holistic health counselor and director of Integrative Healthcare at Lourdes Wellness Center in Collingswood, N.J. “But there’s more and more information in the general and health media that points to the fact that when we shift to a more plant-based diet, we have less incidents of cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
DO WE NEED MILK?
The nutritional content of milk cannot be denied; in addition to calcium, it is a source of potassium, riboflavin, protein, folate, phosphorous and vitamins A, B12 and D, among other nutrients.
“With kids, it lays the foundation for strong bones and healthy teeth, and it’s still important when we get older,” says Judy Dunlap, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager for Capital Health in Trenton. “Quite frankly, you could get the nutrients that are in dairy products from other foods or beverage sources, but the key thing with dairy is that it’s just a really nice, convenient, nutritious package. You’re not going to get the same combination of nutrients in other foods. When the day is done, dairy still does a body good.”
She also cites studies indicating that low-fat dairy can be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and incidents of hypertension.
But for all its seeming wholesomeness, dairy was not necessarily intended to be a cornerstone of our diet as it is today.
“Dairy is so prevalent in America that it’s hard to have a meal without it,” says Friedman. “People have had it drilled into them their whole lifetime that that’s where they should get their primary source of calcium, but it’s only because it’s easy and simple.”
While The Dietary Guidelines jointly issued by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services now recommend 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy a day — instead of the previously held less quantifiable recommendation for two to three servings of milk, yogurt and cheese — some still question the ingrained notion of dairy being essential.
“People often don’t think of it this way, but it’s not normal to be able to digest cow’s milk. Human beings aren’t supposed to drink milk after infancy,” says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietitian and renowned writer on food, nutrition and dietary guidance policy whose book “Living Dairy-Free for Dummies” was published in August. “No other mammal drinks milk after infancy. They move on to solid foods. To think we not only drink milk as adults but we drink milk fromanother species — it’s no wonder that the natural state of being for most of the world’s adults is lactose intolerance. It’s just common sense.”
A NATURAL REACTION
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the milk sugar lactose, and while not everyone may experience the symptoms, which include bloating, gas, nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, just about everyone, by adulthood, can no longer digest this sugar. (A dairy allergy, on the other hand, occurs due to sensitivity to the proteins in dairy.)
By that time, our bodies have generally stopped producing lactase, the enzyme designed to help us absorb the lactose in our mother’s breast milk and break it down so that it can be used as energy.
“We have the enzymes in our stomach to break down our own mother’s milk. We don’t have enzymes in our stomach to break down cow’s milk,” says Connor. “They actually put an enzyme in milk to help us break down the sugars. It’s one of the things that’s added synthetically.”
So are many of the vitamins that give milk its nutritional value. And even big milk drinkers can be deficient in other minerals and vitamin D, which can also be found in foods like wild salmon, sardines and cod.
“There is not a milk across the board that will supply you with the adequate amount of vitamin D and calcium that you need,” says Connor. “No matter what, if you drink cow’s dairy or an alternative, you still need to have an adequate amount of dark green vegetables and vitamin D.”
Sure, we’ve all been told that milk is important for healthy bone growth and development. But according to Hobbs, cow’s milk, which does provide a highly concentrated source of calcium, is designed to help a baby calf develop a significant skeleton in a short amount of time. Primates, on the other hand, build their bones eating plant matter, as do many other mammals once weaned off their mothers’ milk.
“How does the hippopotamus and the rhinoceros and the giraffe get so big? They don’t drink cow’s milk. They eat green vegetables. Anything green is high in calcium,” says Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a family physician and nutritional researcher who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through natural and dietary methods.
The Flemington, N.J.-based doctor is also the author of books such as “Eat To Live: The Revolutionary Plan for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss” and “Disease-Proof Your Child.”
“The American diet is centered on animal meats and processed foods like flour and sugar and oil, and we have to reduce processed foods and eat less animal products,” he says, adding that animal products account for 40 percent of calories in the American diet instead of a more healthy 10 percent. “Animal products do not contain antioxidants and phytochemicals that fight cancer, and we’ve established that a dairy-, meat- and sugar-based diet is at the foundation of why we get cancer.”
THE HEALTH PERSPECTIVE
While there are numerous instances in which eliminating dairy from the diet has been shown to improve and even clear up conditions such as asthma and other bronchial ailments, allergies, rashes, fibroids, acne and irritable bowel syndrome, going dairy-free is in no way a panacea.
“The major issue is that it is not this super health food that people think it is,” says Fuhrman, noting studies linking heavy milk consumption to increased incidents and severity of prostate cancer in men and ovarian cancer in women.
According to Hobbs, with dairy products being a leading source of saturated fat in the American diet, over-consumption can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, as saturated fats raise blood levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Many cheeses also are high in sodium.
“Milk plus fat plus salt equals cheese,” she says. “We get too much sodium in our diet and too much saturated fat, and dairy products add to things we already get in excess in our diet.”
But while choosing low- or no-fat options — or even opting for one of the many available alternatives — may help to protect the heart, the goal is still to get more vegetables, seeds, nuts, berries and nutrient-dense foods into the diet.
“Although the dietary guidelines suggest 2 to 3 cups of milk a day, they’re making the assumption that people are going to continue eating a typical American diet,” says Hobbs, who is a clinical associate professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“We want to really establish a different sort of eating style. We’re a culture that likes our chips and our Coke and tend to not want to eat our vegetables, so we really need to emphasize all the good ways there are to eat our vegetables and make it easier for everyone to get the calcium and other minerals they need.”
MAKING THE SWITCH
Dairy has become an occasional treat in Connor’s household, with the family primarily alternating between organic soy, unsweetened original hemp and whole grain rice milk.
“If we do buy dairy, it’s very high-quality, either from a local farm or an animal that’s grass-fed,” she says. “The milk is as healthy as the animal, so if the cows don’t see daylight, they’re not eating grass, they’re not moving around — the quality we’re getting is not very good. An animal that moves around outside is leaner and has vitamin D from the sun, so that milk is going to be more nutritious.”
If considering going dairy-free, slowly reducing one’s intake is a good way to start.
“I don’t think dairy is harmful — the calcium, the protein, all that stuff that’s in there is so good for people who need it at a relatively low cost — but it depends on how much you’re having and in what form you’re having it,” says Friedman. “My advice? Buy organic when you can and always buy low-fat.”
But low-fat or skim versions may not always be a prudent choice for some, as studies have linked drinking skim and low-fat milk to an increased risk of prostate cancer malignancy. For many, however, switching to a low-fat variety is an easier transition than cutting out dairy cold.
Even then, Hobbs advises moderating one’s intake.
“Little bits of milk in your coffee or cheese used as a condiment over your salad or a little bit of parmesan on your pasta — if it’s used in smaller quantities, then it’s not too bad,” she says.
When it comes to alternatives, Hobbs suggests experimenting with the many options available to find a taste that appeals.
“Some children like rice milk because it’s so white, it almost looks like cow’s milk. Many adults like almond or soy milk because it’s thicker and creamier. I like almond milk because it doesn’t curdle in my coffee,” she says. “Of course, you can make the case that soy milk and almond milk aren’t natural, either — they are a processed food — but they are useful to the extent that they’re a convenient substitute for cow’s milk the way we’ve been using it.”
Friedman notes that some may choose a dairy substitute based on whether they’re looking for a source of protein or trying to lose weight. Although still an animal product, goat’s milk is also an option worth exploring, as it is believed to be more easily digestible and less allergenic than cow’s milk.
Ultimately, putting the effort into adding more variety to one’s diet is still the most optimal way to get an adequate supply of dairy.
“You have to be a conscious consumer,” says Connor. “That is your key to being healthy, to know where your food comes from.”
Breakout: Weighing the options
Here’s a look at the most popular dairy alternatives and how they compare, though taste — which varies from thick and creamy to a sweet, nutty flavor — is a matter of personal preference.
Drink up: Soy has the most protein of any nondairy beverage and also contains iron, which is not naturally found in cow’s milk. It’s also among the most affordable. It can be used for baking, drinking and cooking, though it may curdle at higher temperatures. An organic soy milk is best in order to avoid consuming genetically modified soybeans, as ongoing controversy remains about the potential risks of foods created or enhanced through molecular biology techniques. Light soy milk, says Kathryn Friedman, a holistic health counselor, is a good choice for someone trying to lose weight.
Sour points: There’s some debate about whether too much soy can be harmful, especially in terms of creating hormone imbalances. “People who have a history of breast cancer or another estrogen-receptive cancer should stay away from or limit their soy intake because it has an effect on the body that is similar to estrogen,” says Friedman. Soy allergies are also prevalent, as soy contains a nondigestible carbohydrate that may cause stomach upset.
Drink up: It’s one of the least allergenic options and thus is more likely to appeal to milk lovers with dairy or other allergies. Rice milk also is available in a brown rice/whole grain variety, which boosts fiber intake. Its watery texture makes it best suited to drinking or pouring on cereal.
Sour points: It’s low in protein and higher in sugar content and calories than other options. “It’s not a good nutritional replacement for milk unless heavily fortified and combined with a wholesome diet of dark green vegetables and vitamin D,” says Crystal Connor, a holistic nutrition and health counselor.
Drink up: In addition to vitamin E and calcium, it offers a good dose of essential healthy fats and is great for baking. Friedman notes that next to a light soy milk, unsweetened almond milk is also a good alternative for the weight-conscious.
Sour points: Despite a higher protein content than rice milk, it’s a weak protein choice overall and is an allergen to those with nut allergies.
Drink up: A source of healthy protein and naturally occurring omega fats, hemp milk, which is made from shelled hempseeds, has both omega 3 and 6 as well as all 10 essential amino acids and naturally occurring nutrients such as vitamin E, zinc, magnesium and iron.
Sour points: The strong nutty flavor may be a turnoff and it may cause a reaction in those with nut allergies.
Drink up: This milk has more protein than almond or rice milk, is high in fiber and also contains phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemicals in plants that help fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Sour points: The sugar content can be high. Those with celiac disease or any other form of gluten intolerance may wish to avoid it, as they might be sensitive to the avenin protein found in oats.
Drink up: As a soy-, dairy- and gluten-free alternative, it’s an attractive option. Coconut milk also boasts naturally occurring medium-chain fatty acids, which the body uses for energy.
Sour points: It’s low in protein and higher in sugar than other alternatives and doesn’t contain fiber.
Breakout: Choosing an alternative
These guidelines are recommended when making the switch to a diary alternative:
- Go for the original or unsweetened brand to avoid excess sugar.
- Look for less than 10 to 12 grams of sugar per serving.
- Look for 5 to 8 or more grams of protein.
- Make sure it’s fortified, especially with calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D.
- Opt for organic when possible.
Breakout: Getting your calcium
Here’s a sampling of good-for-your dairy-free sources of calcium:
- Sesame seeds
- Dried figs
- Chinese cabbage
- Mustard greens
- Swiss chard
- Black beans
- Pinto beans
- Calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk
– The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times and Burlington County Times