Knowing that I am usually happy to share my opinion about the healthfulness of certain foods, my elementary-age son frequently asks, “Is this healthy? What about this?”
His most recent question: “Is cheese healthy?”
While I know he is looking for a basic yes or no answer, that is often unpractical. It is even more complicated if you scale up the question to encompass the entire group of dairy. This particular question most simply comes down to two variables – the dairy and the person.
Like all other foods, dairy is best when it is whole and unprocessed. Pasteurization, homogenization, and fat-reducing techniques are all forms of processing which degrade milk to virtual junk food. Pasteurization – exposure to high heat – kills microbes in the milk, which is important when you have an enormous volume of milk being distributed over long distances. Sanitary milk is an issue of public safety. The process, however, also damages important enzymes that aid your body’s ability to digest the milk and absorb its nutrients. After pasteurization, milk is no longer a live food.
Unlike pasteurization – which does indeed address some potential health concerns – homogenization is truly about convenience. This process forces the milk fats with such high pressure that they are separated into tiny particles. They then can be suspended in the milk, allowing it to be a uniform consistency. Without homogenization, the milk fats float to the top and collect in a creamy layer. While this may seem desirable, the force put on the fats causes some damage to their structure and prevents them from being available to the body.
All reduced fat versions of milk – low fat, non-fat, skim – are less healthful than the unadulterated versions. While taking out the fat reduces calories, it renders what is left virtually useless. The remaining liquid contains vitamins and minerals, but those nutrients require fats as cofactors for their effective assimilation.
The best dairy is raw, unprocessed and organic from a farmer you trust.
This type of milk is full of necessary enzymes, vitamins and minerals, and intact fats. Currently, raw milk is illegal to buy and sell in Alaska. A loophole does exist – you may take milk home from an animal you own. Cow and goat farmers sell shares of their animals, giving you partial ownership and the right to obtain the milk on a prearranged basis.
Dairy comes in many forms, and some are better than others. Liquid milk is incredibly common, but it is often categorized as a drink. It really should be looked at as a food, if consumed at all. Yogurt and kefir are good options in the dairy category, as long as they are all natural and unsweetened. While offering up a mix of probiotics along with their vitamins and minerals, they can also provide irrational amounts of sugar, as well as preservatives and stabilizers in the more processed varieties.
Cheeses also require a discerning eye. While raw, unpasteurized, and minimally processed cheeses can be wholesome, other choices barely deserve the title of cheese at all. The more processing the food has undergone, the less nourishment it will contain. One easy mental framework to use is considering how much work you as a consumer need to do. The more work, the better. A hearty hunk of cheese that requires some wrangling to be served is a good sign. Making your own cheese? Even better. Pre-shredded, pre-sliced and pre-wrapped are bad signs. Those shreds may be convenient, but be sure to check out the extra ingredients required in that bag next time.
Even after choosing the best diary source, the food may still not be a good choice for you as a biological individual. Many people experience issues with dairy, ranging from reduced quality of life to just discomfort. Symptoms like sinus congestion or skin breakouts can be a sign of a dairy sensitivity, but other symptoms are more serious.
Lactose intolerance is a very common condition that manifests in individuals lacking lactase, the enzyme required to break down lactose – the sugar found in milk. These people experience gas, bloating and diarrhea when eating certain types of dairy. Yogurt and cheese are sometimes tolerated, because the fermentation process breaks down the lactose. Butter is made up of the fat from the milk, with lower levels of lactose. Ghee – clarified butter – is the best for those who are lactose intolerant, because the lactose has been cooked out entirely, leaving only the oil. Ghee is delicious and a dream to cook with. Without the sugars, it will not burn.
The most serious issue related to dairy is a casein allergy.
Casein is the protein found in dairy foods and some people have significant reactions. The symptoms of a milk allergy are often seen in children. Skin problems like rashes and eczema may indicate a milk allergy, as can frequent ear infections or hyperactivity. If any of your children experience these issues, the simplest and safest way to investigate potential links is to remove dairy from their diet for several weeks and monitor improvements.
Because of all the potential problems with dairy, just omitting is from your diet is never a bad choice and can serve as a simple solution. The vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins found in milk and dairy can easily be made up for by consuming a spectrum of whole plant and animal foods. For those with debilitating lactose intolerance or casein allergies, this may be the best idea.
For many, the idea of giving up dairy constitutes a life-altering crisis. If you can’t visualize a life without cheese, but you would prefer to live without the uncomfortable side-effects of dairy consumption, there are some steps you can take to improve your relationship with dairy foods.
Dairy sensitivities are frequently a sign of compromised gut health. Damage to the lining of the small intestine, imbalance in the gut microbiome and digestive enzyme insufficiency are all potential root causes of problems with dairy. Remedies to try include eliminating processed foods from the diet, taking probiotic supplements or eating probiotic foods, drinking gut-soothing teas including licorice root and slippery elm, drinking bone broths, and supplementing with digestive enzymes before meals.
A robust gut can tolerate much more abuse than a damaged one. A focus on regaining a healthy digestive system can earn you back the privilege of savoring a tasty bite of cheese or sip of cream, without the suffering.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice.
Weatherby, D. (2004). Signs and Symptoms Analysis from a Functional Perspective. Bear Mountain Publishing, Jacksonville.
Haas, E. M. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Celestial Arts, Berkeley.
Editor’s Note: Sara Kennedy is a certified nutritional therapy consultant. She is the owner of Renegade Wellness found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/paleoalaska. Connect with her online at www.thriveak.com.