However, in recent years dairy has begun to fall out of favor as digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance have become more prevalent - or at least more obvious.
So what is the real story on dairy? Is it good for you, or bad? Should you limit your consumption, or avoid it all together?
Today we will take a look at some of these questions and attempt to clear up some of the confusion surrounding dairy.
In recent years, the dairy nay-sayers have stated a number of reasons why dairy should be avoided. Digestive health issues are a primary concern - as well they should be, since the number of digestive disorders and chronic illnesses continues to increase, causing untold suffering for millions of people every year. But is dairy truly the cause of this epidemic, or is something else to blame?
Others have claimed that dairy is a cause of other major modern diseases such as cancer, high cholesterol, and more, while still others have blamed dairy for an increase in food and other allergies.
Environmentalists cite the terrible toll that industrial dairy farming takes on the environment, while animal rights activists protest the inhumane conditions in which dairy cattle are kept and raised.
And lastly, a few thoughtful individuals have decided that drinking another species' milk is simply unnatural. And if you really think about it, it is kind of weird... After all, milk is produced specifically to feed one's young. Baby goats don't drink cow's milk, and vice versa, and you don't see any other adult animal species consuming milk of any kind.
However, there is another side to the debate as well.
Those In Favor, Say...
On the other side are ancestral eating proponents such as those in the Weston Price camp, who feel that since animal products have been consumed by humans practically since the origin of our species, they are perfectly healthy and even necessary for optimal health.
And me? In similar food-related debates, I would often stand somewhere in the middle - everything in moderation, etc.
But dairy is a bit different, as there are so many people who do have real problems with drinking milk. So I have a few more specific suggestions than simply "consume in moderation."
1. Go Raw...
If you have a real problem with dairy, you probably already know it - or at least suspect it. Lactose intolerance is fairly widespread, although the degree of severity can vary a lot. If you experience negative digestive issues after consuming dairy, then yes, you should probably avoid it. However, if you are very attached to dairy foods and find it hard to give them up entirely, there are a few things you can try.
For one, I would absolutely agree that the pasteurized, homogenized, highly processed milk on store shelves today bears little resemblance to what our human ancestors have consumed for thousands of years. Milk that has been treated in this manner is lacking the essential enzymes that originally helped humans to digest it - not to mention all of the important vitamins and fats that make it a truly nutritious food.
If you can find a source of raw, whole milk, give that a try, and see if it is easier for you to digest. Many people have found they can enjoy raw milk - and products made from it - with impunity, even after experiencing years of "lactose intolerance" caused by commercial milks.
2. Got Grass?
One of the best ways to ensure that the dairy you consume is healthy, that the animals were treated well, and that the environment was protected is to buy grass-fed. For the most part, grass-fed cattle are MUCH healthier than any industrially raised CAFO animal could ever be. The fresh, green grass that they consume is converted in vitamins that make their way into your milk, creating a much healthier beverage that is higher in a number of healthy fats and essential factors that are often missing from the modern American diet (such as certain important forms of Vitamin K that are ONLY found in full-fat dairy).
And yes, grass-fed animals can be a lot better for the environment, if the farmer knows what they are doing! Rotational grazing practices can actually help to enhance soil health, and reduce erosion and runoff of waste into water supplies.
That said, to be able to effectively raise all dairy cattle on grass using responsible and sustainable grazing practices would require quite a bit of land - possibly more than we have available (although I still contend that much of our agricultural land is misused and inefficiently managed, and if everyone switched to more efficient model, who knows what could be possible?)... So, in the interest of making healthier choices both for yourself and the planet, if you do consume dairy, make sure it's grass-fed, buy local whenever possible, and consume in moderation.
But Is It Really Natural?
On the "humans aren't meant to drink milk" front, I have a couple of thoughts on that as well. First of all, maybe it is weird to drink another species' milk - but then again, we humans are WEIRD! Drinking milk is probably the least of it...
Part of what makes us human is our penchant for doing weird stuff that other species don't do. After all, no other species cooks its food either. And few other species combine foods together to make a more nutritious meal, which we have been doing practically since the beginning of time - or at least, the beginning of our species.
While you can argue that our digestive systems have not evolved to digest milk, I disagree. Humans have been consuming the milk of various animals for thousands (perhaps even millions) of years. Ancient remains of human societies and primitive peoples from various countries all around the world have contained traces of milk proteins - although it was more prevalent in some regions than others (for example, dairy has never been common on the Asian continent).
Is it weird? Maybe. Is it new to our digestive systems? Hardly.
However, what IS new to us - at least in evolutionary terms - is the processing of milk. Prior to the discovery of pasteurization, milk was always consumed raw - or cooked only very slightly. Obviously, fresh milk doesn't keep for long (especially without refrigeration), so various fermentation methods were used to preserve the nutrients in milk for human consumption (and potentially make it easier to digest as well). Fermented milk products such as sour cream, cheese, yogurt, clabber, and others were prevalent before the advent of refrigeration, and many health experts now suggest that the lack of fermented foods in the modern American diet may be partly to blame for the drastic increase in digestive issues we are experiencing.
So no, pasteurized, skimmed, homogenized, artificial-strawberry-flavored milk is NOT natural. However, raw, whole milk in it's original form is far from foreign to the human body - at least in most areas of the world.
What About the Health Stuff?
Lastly, in terms of milk as a healthy food or an unhealthy one, Dr. Weston Price's research suggests that primitive cultures which consumed raw, fresh, whole-milk dairy products on a regular basis experienced better dental health, and better health overall, than those consuming a modern diet. And recent studies have found that even processed milk does not have the ill health effects that some have attributed to it. For example, a comprehensive study of 29 different studies covering more than 900,000 people published in the April 2017 European Journal of Epidemiology found no link between milk/dairy and premature death or cardiovascular disease.
However, if you do want to consume dairy, there is no question that the best way to do it is in it's natural, unprocessed form.
And if you don't, that's fine as well! Just as there is no rule that says you have to eat meat, there is no rule that you have to drink milk either - or eat yogurt, cheese, or ice cream. However, if you love dairy, but find it causes problems for you, give raw milk a try and see if it helps (read more about raw milk, and find sources here). If you care about the environment and the treatment of animals, buy grass-fed, and local if at all possible. But most of all, remember my 2nd rule for healthy eating, and stay away from the highly-processed, skimmed, homogenized, and otherwise depleted milk in those white plastic jugs in the refrigerator case of your local supermarket - there is no nutritional value to be found there, regardless of where you stand in the dairy debate.
Got questions? Visit our Facebook page to chime in on the debate!
To your health,