The relationship between dairy consumption and disease involves an incredibly complicated network of studies, all bringing to light differing opinions about dairy’s overall impact. Part of this has to do with the type of study, — think observational versus analysis — but a lot of it has to do with the fact that dairy’s impact on the human body also involves many other cofactors including lifestyle habits, the quality and type of dairy consumed, as well as genetics. On top of that, it also comes down to the type of dairy product in regards to how the animal was treated, how the dairy product was processed, and what has been added to the dairy product.
You’ll find that these questions illuminate that many dairy products are rich in hormones and antibiotics, high in added sugars and saturated fat, and have many chemical fillers and preservatives that can cause bodily harm. Basically, lots of unnatural ingredients that increase the risk factors that lead to disease.
What’s so Unhealthy About Dairy?
Alright, before we get into the nitty-gritty regarding dairy and disease, what is it about dairy that makes it so controversial in the health world? If you search dairy online in regards to health you’ll find a slew of contradicting information. Some people believe dairy has beneficial bacteria for the gut, loads of calcium, and is a great source of protein, while others report high saturated fat, synthetic hormones that mess with your natural ones, and increased added sugars.
These arguments don’t even take into consideration the non-health related reasons why dairy is incredibly harmful to our society and planet.
First and foremost, think about those greenhouse gasses. Think about the mass quantities of dairy being produced — U.S.-based dairy farms alone “produce 196 billion pounds of milk a year,” 11.1 billion pounds of cheese (excluding cottage cheese), 1.86 billion pounds of butter, and 1,052 million pounds of regular-fat ice creams. In order to create these quantities of dairy products, there is an estimate of nine million dairy cows.
These animals not only require leviathan amounts of water — feed, hydration, and cleaning — but for each cow “between 250 and 500 liters of methane” is produced daily. This means that a standard dairy farm with 700 cows produces around “350,000 liters or 325,500 pounds of methane … every day.”
Most Human Bodies Reject Dairy
Alright, that’s pretty scary.
What about the fact that most of the world is actually lactose intolerant?
If you’re not lactose intolerant yourself, then you most likely know at least one or two (or more) people that do suffer from this sensitivity.
As an infant, our bodies naturally produce lactase, which is a digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose to be processed through our bodies without disruption. Unfortunately for many, as we grow older “many people lose the ability to break down lactose.”
This may not seem like a “health” risk of dairy, but when you look at what it does to your body, it absolutely can be considered a disruption. Lactose intolerance causes a slew of digestive symptoms including “nausea, vomiting, diarrhea,” as well as gas, bloating, and it can even cause mood changes.
The prevalence of lactose intolerance begs the question … is dairy natural for our bodies when about “75 [percent] of the world’s adult population is unable to break down lactose,” otherwise referred to as lactose intolerance?
Exposure to Hormones and Antibiotics
Another factor to consider is the synthetic hormones and antibiotics that are regularly pumped into dairy cows to keep them healthy in the oftentimes inhumane and unclean living conditions of a large-scale dairy farm.
So, what’s so bad about some antibiotics? Aren’t they supposed to keep those big bad bugs out of our bodies?
If you haven’t heard, there’s a little problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While the overuse of antibiotics in the medical field plays a partial role, you can actually pay more tribute to the use of antibiotics in dairy cows. This means that “when humans are infected by … superbugs, antibiotics at best have decreased effectiveness and at worse are powerless.
The hormone connection is a little scarier … if that’s possible.
A narrative review of research conducted at Urmia University and the University of Medical Sciences in Iran entitled Hormones in Dairy Foods and Their Impact on Public Health – A Narrative Review Article discovered a few startling facts about dairy-related hormones. First, they concluded that “steroid hormones are very potent compounds in dairy foods, which [exert] profound biological effects in animals and humans,” even at “very low doses.” On top of that, the analysis found that the consumption of estrogen and oestrogen-treated animals could have “unwanted effects on human health.”
Dairy and Disease
While cutting dairy for environmental reasons and for animal activism are both good enough reasons, there are a handful of health-related reasons to dump the cheese, yogurt, and milk in the fridge. Dairy has been linked to various health issues and, even more scary, some diseases including certain cancers. So, let’s take a look at the scientifically-backed reasons why dairy might be that food group to begin reconsidering in your fridge.
1. More Acne Breakouts
While some may call this a vanity side effect — as someone who has suffered from adult acne for 10 years — acne can be incredibly debilitating and emotionally disruptive.
So, what’s up with dairy and acne? When you consume dairy, it “stimulates the release of insulin and the protein IGF-1.”
Insulin is a “hormone made by the pancreas that allows your body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates in the food that you eat for energy or to store glucose for future use,” as well as “keeps your blood sugar level from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia).” The protein IGF-1 is a bit more complicated. IGF stands for “growth factor-1,” which is an insulin-like compound regulated by dietary protein or amino acid — the building blocks of protein. This insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) “is a major regulator of growth and metabolism for mammals … [and is a protein] … synthesized and released from the liver.”
2. Increased Risk of Cancer
To begin, it’s important to understand the term cancer.
We’re not just talking about a single health condition that can affect different parts of the body, but the term cancer actually refers to a “group of more than 100 diseases in which cells display uncontrollable growth, invasion, and sometimes metastasis.” Certain studies have deduced that “milk and dairy products contain micronutrients and several bioactive constituents that may influence cancer risk and progression.”
For instance, along with being a causal factor in acne breakouts, per the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, “high levels of insulin and IGF-1 are also associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.”
With that said, the relationship between dairy is incredibly complex.
It’s not necessarily the food product that is “dairy” — such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and such — but the way in which dairy is processed in these modern days including pasteurization, injections of antibiotics and hormones, the health of the animals, and the inclusion of preservatives and sugar additives.
With that said, a report by the Division of Public Health Sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington developed an analysis of a World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research report and stated:
“Based on a systematic review of the epidemiologic literature, the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research report concluded there was a probable association between milk intake and lower risk of colorectal cancer, a probable association between diets high in calcium and increased risk of prostate cancer, and limited evidence of an association between milk intake and lower risk of bladder cancer. For other cancers, the evidence was mixed or lacking.”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also published an article noting an increased risk of prostate, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers in relation to the consumption of dairy products. The article was based around several studies including one study from the British Journal of Cancer, which found the “incident rates for lung, breast, and ovarian cancers decreased among the lactose intolerant” — those that steered clear of dairy — while those that included dairy “did not experience the same reduction in cancer risk.” The article also noted a “new meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” which analyzed 32 studies and “found [that] total dairy product, total milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and dietary calcium intakes were incrementally associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer.”
3. Dairy and Blood Sugar
The connection between dairy products and type 2 diabetes is a hotly debated topic that really hasn’t been resolved. While the association between “intake of dairy products and the risk of type 2 diabetes has been investigated in several studies,” the evidence is unfortunately not conclusive.
Yet, it’s not necessarily the effect of dairy products on the evolution of type 2 diabetes, but the effect of dairy on blood sugar that should be focused on.
Type 2 diabetes “is a chronic condition that affects the way your body metabolizes sugar (glucose) — an important source of fuel for your body.” There are two ways a type 2 diabetes body reacts to insulin — “your body either resists the effects of insulin — a hormone that regulates the movement of sugar in your cells — or doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain normal glucose levels.”
When it comes to sugar content, regular unadulterated milk contains lactose, milk sugar. This contributes to about “40 percent of whole cow’s milk’s calories.” It’s been found that “lactose can definitely raise your blood glucose,” as an “enzyme called lactase splits it up into glucose and galactose.”
There are two arguments for the effect of lactose on blood sugar.
First, there are a host of nutritionists that say since the splitting of lactose into glucose and galactose takes time it “converts to blood glucose relatively slowly (that is to say, it has a low glycemic index or GI.)” On the other hand, some say that — due to a mixture of “lactose and some of the amino acids in whey proteins” — “dairy may have a low GI (glycemic index), but it stimulates insulin as if it had a high GI.”
4. Inflammation Caused by Dairy
Even though inflammation is a natural and essential immune response, when inflammation turns chronic it can have the opposite white knight effect on our body.
Inflammation is one of those hot topic health words that we’re all obsessed with. And, this is for good reason. Chronic bodily inflammation has recently been called into question as a “unifying theory of disease” as it’s been connected with many diseases including diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and even diabetes.
When it comes to dairy consumption and inflammation, you’re really talking about inflammation and saturated fat.
Studies have found an increase in inflammation with a diet that’s high in saturated fats — which is the main fat found in most dairy products. Per the Arthritis Foundation, “several studies have shown that saturated fats trigger adipose (fat tissue) inflammation, which is not only an indicator for heart disease but it also worsens arthritis inflammation.”
In fact, those that follow an anti-inflammatory diet generally cut dairy almost 100 percent! An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on foods that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants and are low in processed ingredients and sugar such as “fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (like beans and nuts), fatty fish, and fresh herbs and spices.”
It’s incredibly rare that you’ll find an anti-inflammatory diet that is a proponent of dairy and … once again … this is all due to that saturated fat content.
You’re looking at kicking dairy from your fridge, but that’s a lot easier said than done. Dairy is a staple that has simply become part of our everyday life. What will you put in your cereal? How will you make those delightful oats? What creamy concoction will froth your coffee? Luckily, there are a host of super healthy plant-based alternatives for every single one of your favorite dairy-based products. Here are a few to get you started on a dairy-free lifestyle!
Even if you’ve been consuming dairy your entire life, you’ve probably had the opportunity to try nut-based milk. That’s because there has been a plant-based milk boom over the last decade or so, mostly in response to people becoming more aware of their personal wellness and the increasing realization of lactose intolerance.
With that said, which nut milk is for you?
You can go super traditional with options such as almond milk, — Pure Almond Mylk — soy milk, — Homemade Soy Milk — or coconut milk, — How to Make Homemade Coconut Milk. With that said, you can also think out of the box with alternatives such as this Brazil Nut Milk, this Simple Vanilla Oat Milk, this Peanut Milk, or this Sesame Seed Milk.
Simply put, you can pretty much create and make any type of milk that suits your nutritional needs and palate!
Most of the time, the hardest dairy product for most of us to kick is cheese. That’s mostly due to the “crack-like” ingredient called casein. This ingredient actually has addictive qualities making cheese that thing that’s so hard to avoid indulging in. With that said, just because you’re looking to remove dairy from your diet doesn’t mean you have to get rid of those cheesy recipes!
In fact, you can pretty much stick to every single one of your traditional favs by simply replacing dairy cheese with delightful plant-based cheese! Plus, depending on your particular diet, you can pretty much make cheese from an assortment of plant-based goodies.
Here are a few recipes to get you started: Roasted Garlic and Fresh Herb Cream Cheez, Tofu Gouda, Cashew Brie, Raw Cashew Almond Cheese, Chipotle Aquafaba Cheese, Baked Cashew Mozzarella, Potato and Carrot Cheese, or this Garlic and Herb Cream Cheese.
Wait … if I don’t have dairy in my fridge, then what am I going to spread on my morning toast? How am I going to bake? Do I have to completely go without that wonderful melty delightfulness that is butter?
Absolutely not! Not only are there loads of options of plant-based butter online — such as this Miyokos Creamery Organic European Cultured Butter — and at your local grocery store — such as this Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks — but there are also a host of super created completely plant-based vegan recipes that you can make at home.
Try out a few of these vegan butter recipes: Vegan Butter, Palm-Oil Free, Soy-Free Butter, Homemade Butter, Golden Garlic Butter, Apple Butter, Coconut Butter, Garlicky Chive Blossom Butter, or this Homemade Cocoa-Coconut Butter.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!
Being publicly-funded gives us a greater chance to continue providing you with high-quality content. Please support us!
Help keep One Green Planet free and independent! Together we can ensure our platform remains a hub for empowering ideas committed to fighting for a sustainable, healthy, and compassionate world. Please support us in keeping our mission strong.