Fact-Checked By: Dr. Tara Scott, OB-GYN
You may remember the saying from the ’80s...
Milk: it does a body good.
The slogan was splashed everywhere, from billboards to TV advertisements. In the early 2000s, the slogan changed to “got milk?” Usually accompanied by celebrity endorsements with prominent milk mustaches, the promise of drinking milk to grow healthy and strong was repeatedly assured.
We’ve been told as females that milk is a good source of calcium and a necessary part of a nursing mother’s nutritional needs for healthy babies. But, is that true? Are there healthier ways to substitute the nutrients found in milk? Do the pros outweigh the cons? And how do you decide if a dairy-free diet is right for you?
What Is In Dairy?
First of all, what is in dairy? Dairy, especially milk that comes from cows, contains hormones and proteins including casein, lactose, and nutrients such as calcium, iodine, and vitamins. Enriched milk provides extra vitamin D and potassium. Both whey and casein have been linked to lowering blood pressure.
However, milk may also contain dioxins. According to the Environmental Working Group, “dioxins can disrupt the delicate ways that both male and female sex hormone signaling occurs in the body.” Dioxins build up in the body over time, leading to negative effects on the immune system.
Concerns over the nutritional value of dairy and added hormones and endocrine disrupters like dioxins have led to more research. Recent results do vary, causing some experts to recommend a dairy-free dietary plan.
The Effects Of Dairy On The Female Body
The effects of dairy on the body vary from person to person. While some females may be just fine with including milk and other dairy products in their daily meals, others have found dairy to be problematic.
Jayden Dukes, 22, was lactose intolerant as an infant. The problem seemed to resolve itself during her childhood and teen years. However, in 2018 she began having reactions to dairy. She suffered from stomach problems, bloating, and diarrhea. “I noticed cow's milk-based products, milk, cream cheese, mostly creamy stuff would make me have to go to the bathroom within 20 minutes,” Dukes says.
Dairy has also been linked to other underlying health issues. Suzannah Gerber, a nutritionist and culinary medicine chef states that in her line of work she has seen “breast cancer, adiposity (or obesity), digestive discomfort, and cystic acne” among the negative effects dairy can have on the female body. Additional effects include increases in mucus and inflammation.
The way in which cows are taken care of factors into how the female body breaks down the proteins and hormones found in milk. Author and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner Danielle Brooks says “A cow that is happily chewing grass in a field will produce much healthier milk than one living on a feedlot fed genetically modified corn, antibiotics, and growth hormones. The milk products from grass-fed cows living quality lives on beautiful farms tend to be rich in nutrients vital to the human body.” This makes it easier for the body to assimilate.
While the pros and cons duke it out, some experts take a more neutral approach. Marion Nestle, writer and nutritional teacher for over 30 years, believes “that the truth lies somewhere in between.”
“I’m not aware of convincing evidence that eating dairy foods in the same moderate amounts as recommended for everything else is harmful to health. I’ve seen studies arguing that dairy foods are poison but also that they decrease risks for chronic disease,” Nestle says.
To Be Or Not To Be Dairy-Free
Experts agree that while dairy is not necessarily essential to the human diet, going dairy-free is a very personal choice. There are a few factors to consider when deciding to completely cut out or limit your dairy intake.
- What is your body’s reaction to milk and other dairy products?
- Are alternatives readily available in your area?
Gerber notes “We naturally stop needing the nutritional and hormonal components of milk because our bodies do not have the same growth and biofeedback after weaning.”
Brooks suggests intuitive eating for females. “Make the decision based upon your own intuition and inner guidance. Eat intuitively and trust your body to give you the feedback you are looking for,” she says, “We all know there is no one diet that fits all people.”
Liz Bolton, a mother of two, listened to her body intuitively while breastfeeding her first child. During her pregnancy, her dairy intake was high. “I have always loved cheese so I’m sure I was eating it most days, probably 5-7 days a week. Especially during pregnancy, I was eating a ton of bread and cheese—it was the thing I wanted most.” However, after her daughter showed signs of gassiness, it was recommended by a lactation consultant that she change to an Ayurvedic diet, which is essentially vegan. “I felt less bloated when I made the change, so it was beneficial for both of us.”
After the birth of her second child, she began incorporating some dairy in moderation back into her diet along with alternatives. “These days I will occasionally have cheese and even more occasionally ice cream. I do plant-based butter, non-dairy milks, etc. I don’t do vegan cheese or ice cream because I think they’re gross, so if I’m craving that stuff I’ll just have some of the real thing.”
Dukes found that her health issues were resolved when she committed to completely dairy-free. “(I have) fewer stomach issues, fewer headaches.” Instead of dairy, she drinks almond and oat milk. “The taste of alternative dairy stuff grows on you after a while,” she assures.
Brookes has another approach. “I personally enjoy raw grass-fed milk and my body does very well with it. I reach for the whole fat varieties which are more satiating and nutrient-dense such as yogurt, kefir, raw cheese, and raw milk like my ancestors enjoyed before me for generations. These products are rich in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) which is great for the immune system.” She and Gerber also recommend almond, coconut, or hemp milk for those sensitive to dairy.
For those looking to find alternatives to dairy, or to simply add variety to their diets, the internet holds a treasure trove of ideas. Gerber runs the Big Picture Vegan blog which hosts recipes for making your own sour cream, using coconut milk in baking, and creating full meals. Brooks recommends finding an intuitive eating coach or looking into a workshop. Finally Free offers a variety of workshops, coaches, and its own blog on the subject.
As it is a personal decision, consulting with a nutritionist or doctor should be considered. If you make the decision to go dairy-free and it is not a medical issue, a trial period may be beneficial. Take stock of what dairy products you consume on a regular basis. Try cutting out one or two at a time and take note of any differences you experience. It will take at least four weeks of being completely off of the dairy products before any noticeable difference may be seen. Explore different alternatives by shopping at your local health food store, or section of a grocery store. As always, strive to live your best life and feel good while doing it.