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Making the decision to avoid dairy is a difficult one in our society – everywhere you go things are made with butter, covered in cheese, or filled with milk. But it can be done, and making the effort to do it brings along with it some substantial health benefits.

It’s so ingrained in our culture that dairy equals health, big strong bones, and calcium that many people really think it would be unhealthy to remove it from your diet. This is, of course, a bit ridiculous considering that 75% of the people on the planet are lactose intolerant and don’t consume any dairy at all. For example, dairy consumption is far less common in Japan, yet they maintain a higher life expectancy and better health than the United States.

But how do you get your calcium?

The first question people ask is usually “But how do you get your calcium?” This is of course easy to answer when you point out that many other foods (spinach, kale, broccoli, tofu, soybeans, almonds and molasses, to name a few) offer more calcium per calorie than milk.

The real irony is when you ask people why you need calcium from milk the answer will almost always be “For strong bones!” This is an amazing example of successful marketing by the dairy industry, when you consider that the countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the highest rates of osteoporosis – even if you don’t want to blame dairy for osteoporosis, there really is no evidence that it’s helping.

But dairy is not bad, is it?

So, fine, maybe you don’t need dairy, but it can’t be bad for you, can it? Unfortunately for those of us who love our cheese and ice cream, the evidence suggests that it probably can. Dairy consumption has been linked to cancer, diabetes, autism and schizophrenia, and many autoimmune disorders including Multiple Sclerosis.

Part of this may be from the natural qualities of milk — it is full of the perfect balance of fat, protein, and hormones to help a baby cow gain 300 pounds in a year, which is great for a baby cow, but probably not so great for the struggling-with-obesity humans of Western society! The fat and hormones in dairy (even natural, unprocessed dairy) have been strongly linked with a variety of hormone-related illnesses in humans, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and acne.

If the natural qualities of milk aren’t bad enough, we have to face the reality that the milk we consume is usually far from natural. Most of the milk in the United States is produced on large factory farms, where cows are kept in unhealthy conditions, fed hormones and antibiotics, and generally made so sick that we can’t drink their milk without pasteurizing and homogenizing it — which destroys many of the nutrients and damages the cell structure. Even then, various strains of bacteria can and do make it through to what we drink, leading to disease.

The better choice for your health, animals and the planet

Of course, the science doesn’t necessarily say you should never consume dairy products. It’s possible that moderation alone would cut the health risks significantly. But let’s be realistic: most people are terrible at moderation. It’s really hard to reliably do 5% of anything, on a day-to-day basis, and since removing it entirely from your diet doesn’t pose any risk at all (as evidenced by those billions of healthy people who don’t consume dairy), it is the safer choice, health-wise.

If your personal health isn’t enough of a reason to cut dairy from your diet, the lives of animals and the health of the planet is being affected by our love of all things creamy and cheesy as well. Not only do dairy cows suffer immensely in dairy farms/factories, but they also account for huge amounts of CO2 emissions, land degradation, water consumption, and water contamination. Eliminating dairy from the American diet would dramatically reduce our contribution to all of these problems.

As those of us who have switched to a vegan diet after a lifetime of loving cheese and milk can attest, it can be a little bit of a challenge. But the effort you put into quitting dairy will be rewarded with improved physical and mental health, a cleaner environment, and a new outlook on all the amazing healthy food choices available once you start to look. Seems like a good investment, doesn’t it?

Jessica Verma (Clean Green Simple), Contributor - One Green PlanetJessica Verma: Jessica is the author, researcher, and photographer behind Clean Green Simple, a blog featuring daily recipes, tips, and thoughts on how to make your life healthier and greener while living a convenient modern lifestyle. Her mission is to make eating real, whole foods so simple, affordable, and delicious that anyone can take control of their own health.

Image Source: Almond Milk