Step away from the milk - it probably isn’t doing you any favours [Photo: Rex]
Milk is out of favour. With the rise in dairy and lactose intolerances, alongside the surge in popularity of clean eating and the availability of nut milk alternatives, it seems dairy has had its day.
But is it true that we shouldn’t be drinking milk at all?
We thought milk was good for us
It seems like only yesterday that we were being told the white stuff was the good stuff. That was a time when everyone from David Beckham to Pixie Lott was donning a milk moustache and shouting “Make mine milk!”.
Not so, any more. And how the mighty milk has fallen. Once an unquestionable staple, milk has sunk so low in popularity (consumption is down 30 per cent since the 1990s) that it’s now cheaper than water and the dairy industry is in crisis. In tandem, people have become a lot more health aware and choose to shun milk in favour of ‘healthier’ alternatives - nowadays you’re just as likely to hear someone say “make mine a soy/almond/coconut milk latte” as a plain old semi skimmed.
We thought milk was good for us, but it turns out it might actually be really weird that we drink it.
“The dairy industry has always claimed milk to be a perfect natural food,” says nutritional therapist and member of Nutrition Resources, Cheryl Fayolle. “However, whilst cow’s milk is perfect for newborn calves, many of the nutrients are problematic for humans. In fact, we are the only mammals who consume milk after childhood and some argue that we are not conditioned to consume dairy at all after childhood.”
“Despite all the advertising, there is no biological requirement for cow’s milk,” agrees Christine Bailey, www.christinebailey.co.uk, nutritionist and author of Go Lean Vegan (Yellow Kite Books, published July 2016). “The evidence of its benefits to humans is typically overstated. Our bodies weren’t really made to digest milk on a regular basis.”
So much so that a whopping 75 per cent of the world’s population can’t tolerate it, says Christine. “Dairy causes millions around the world to suffer digestive distress because of lactose intolerance,” she explains.
Some experts believe that we’re actually getting things completely the wrong way round and shouldn’t even be labelling people who can’t digest milk as lactose intolerant, because it suggests this is abnormal.
Instead they talk about lactase persistence - the ability to to digest lactose in adulthood - being the result of a genetic mutation, found predominantly in the descendents of European dairy farmers.
Lactose intolerance: the symptoms
Cheryl Fayolle explains: “Symptoms of intolerance occur within a few hours of ingestion of milk or milk products and cause a variety of symptoms, including abdominal cramps, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, headaches, eczema and nausea.”
Milk is such a staple in our diets that we may not even realise it’s affecting us. For many, some of the lesser symptoms, like bloating, gas and discomfort are a daily occurrence, so commonplace that we don’t even question why they’re happening.
But what about calcium? Isn’t milk essential for strong bones?
“Milk and dairy should never be the main source of calcium.” Cheryl warns.
“It is misleading to suggest that you need dairy for strong bones,” says Christine Bailey. Some studies actually show the opposite to be true: a higher consumption of dairy can in fact increase the risk of bone fractures.“That doesn’t mean you don’t need calcium of course,” she adds.
Other good sources of calcium are salmon (with bones), sardines, seafood, dark leafy vegetables, says Cheryl Fayolle. It is also found in smaller quantities in many other foods such as almonds, asparagus and broccoli.
So should we all be ditching dairy from our diet completely?
Actually, no. The advice from many experts is to think twice before banishing milk from your diet completely. Everything in moderation, as the old adage goes.
For every study that finds a problem with dairy (of which there are many, not just about lactose but also everything from cancer to acne to weight gain), there’s at least one that shows a benefit. These range from reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, reduced duration of respiratory infections in the elderly and even a reduced likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.
And some argue that, contrary to the argument that we’re not conditioned to digest it, humans are in fact amongst the most adaptable organisms on the planet. Just look at those dairy farmers.
Intolerance isn’t black or white, either. Just because someone can’t consume dairy in large quantities doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy it in smaller amounts. “Most lactose intolerant individuals can tolerate small amounts of dairy products, but would struggle with a large café latte or a bowl of milky cereal,” says Cheryl.
But if you do decide to go dairy free, this is a pretty good time to do it, thanks to the abundance of dairy free alternatives that are available.