Dairy and dairy products are consumed as part of any meal of the day, used in recipes for a wide variety of snack foods, even added to coffee and tea. Dairy has become a dietary staple in our households. It is heavily advertised that milk, cheese and yogurt are rich sources of calcium, which helps to grow strong bones in children, and prevent osteoporosis in the middle aged to elderly populations. However, is dairy truly a necessary part of a healthy diet?
First, not everyone tolerates dairy products well. In fact the majority of the human population is lactose intolerant. It is important to remember that the human body and its functions are designed the way they are for a reason. As infants, we are fully capable of digesting lactose (sugar found in milk), because mother’s milk is the source of all the nutrients an infant needs to develop and grow. As teeth emerge and the infant develops the ability to chew and digest solid foods, gradually, mother’s is no longer required, hence the lost ability to breakdown lactose. Just as human mother’s milk is designed to provide the perfect balance of nutrients for the infant, so is cow’s milk for baby cows. If human toddlers do not require a mother’s milk, and most adults can no longer digest it fully, what’s the justification for the need for cow’s milk?
Furthermore, dairy intolerance extends beyond lactose intolerance. One European study found that 5-15% of children under the age 2 years have allergic reactions to cow milk protein. In another study, over 70% primary school-aged children showed symptoms of cow milk protein allergies including nausea, vomiting and skin reactions. Of these school children over 90% responded favourably to elimination of dairy products from their diet. It was also found that 80% of children with ASD (autistic spectrum disorders) showed improvements after the removal of casein and gluten from their diet. The above provide supporting evidence that cow’s milk can be the culprit of a wide range of health concerns in children.
Children are not the only population that adversely react to dairy; adults often also have sensitivity to dairy protein. Dairy protein is comprised of roughly 80% casein, often not well-tolerated by the human digestive system, rendering it the cause of numerous health issues. These include allergies, sinusitis and irritable bowel syndrome. If your body is intolerant to casein, the immune system will mount an inflammatory response to it upon ingestion, which can lead to symptoms of indigestion or allergic symptoms. Casein further contributes to these symptoms by increasing mucous production, and also changing the molecular structure of the mucous produced, making it more “sticky”. As a result, mucous is stuck in body cavities such as sinuses, leading to stuffed up nose and increased phlegm production.
For the above reasons, naturopathic doctors would frequently advise patients to stay away from dairy and dairy products. The challenge, of course is what to replace dairy products with. The first concerns is always calcium; what would one to do ensure adequate calcium intake if milk is to be removed? There is no question that adequate calcium intake is necessary for good health and disease prevention.
However, it is important to keep in mind that dairy is by no means the only natural source of calcium. The average recommended daily intake of calcium is approximately 1000mg. To achieve this amount, we need about 3.5 cups of milk a day. The same amount of calcium intake can be achieved by taking one of the following: 1 tablespoon of tahini (sesame seed butter), 5 servings of kale, 4 servings of collard greens, 1.5 servings of almonds, 1 tablespoon of powdered seaweed or one serving of fish such as sardines and mackerel (with bones).
If you are concerned about absorbability, consider the fact that calcium found in kale for is better absorbed than that from milk and calcium from fortified orange juice is equally well-absorbed as calcium found in milk. Remember also, that calcium absorption is affected by other factors than the amount ingested. For example, calcium absorption is improved by the presence of vitamin D, impaired by increased amount of phosphate (found in pop) and adequate stomach acid.
Substituting dairy with non-dairy sources of calcium encourages the consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, fish and nuts which is greatly beneficial to health. These food items help to ensure adequate intake of folic acid, fibre, a number of vitamins, minerals and omega fatty acid, nutrients are greatly lacking in the typical North American diet.
For young children, milk alternative will help parents transition from breast feeding to solid foods more easily. Milks made from coconut, almond, hemp seeds, soy beans, rice and oats are all feasible options. Coconut milk contains medium chain fatty acids that provide a rich source of healthy fat calories, and it is hypoallergenic. Almond milk is a good source of calcium and protein, however if there is peanut allergy, it is important to be careful with almonds, in case of potential cross-reactions. Hemp seed milk is a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids. Soy milk is a great source of calcium and protein, however soy is a common allergen, so be sure to rule out soy allergies before feeding it to a child, especially before the age of one year. Also, soy is a heavily genetically modified crop, it would be best to purchase soy milk made from non-GMO soybeans. Rice milk is usually fortified with calcium, and it is hypoallergenic however it is not a rich source of protein or healthy fats. Lastly oat milk, like rice milk is not a rich source of protein, fats or calcium, it is also important to note that oat is often contaminated with gluten, so it is important to ensure that the oat milk you purchase is made from gluten-free oat grains. Children older than 6-7 months also eat solid food, therefore it is not a major concern that each milk alternative does not contain all the nutrients they require. It may be a good idea to rotate the different milk alternatives to ensure a wider range of nutritional intake.
The above list of milk alternatives is also feasible for adults. Many adults especially women experience hormonal imbalances due to lifestyle and environmental factors. Soy beans contain phytoestrogens that can help to counter- balance hormonal imbalances, which can help with menstrual issues and menopausal symptoms, and even breast cancer prevention. However for those with hypothyroidism, soy milk would not be the best option. With these options you can benefit from the elimination of dairy products without worrying about compromised calcium intake, children and adults alike.
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