All the Facts About Dairy You Ever Wanted To Know

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Whole milk is an abundant and very energy dense food source – but it is one that many adults shouldn’t consume.

Whole milk serves the purpose of nourishing infants until they are old enough to eat other foods. Lactose, the main sugar in dairy milk, is responsible for a common complaint – lactose intolerance.

“[It] occurs when people stop making lactase, the digestive enzyme located along the small intestinal wall that breaks lactose into glucose and galactose for easy digestion. This usually occurs around the age of four or five (lactose intolerance is incredibly rare in infants, for obvious reasons). Without lactase, lactose is instead metabolized by bacteria, which can cause stomach upset, flatulence, diarrhea, bloating, [and] nausea.”

– Mark Sisson,

Around 65% of adults have varying levels of lactose intolerance, which causes uncomfortable symptoms for those who consume dairy.

On the other hand, only 65% of males and 40% of females consume enough calcium – and milk is a great source of this important mineral! So, why do we keep drinking milk? Because dairy is both nutritious and delicious.

How do we get all the benefits and limit the drawbacks? Here are all the facts about dairy you ever wanted to know.

Breaking Down Dairy Nutrition

Milk from cows (the most commonly consumed milk in the US) is approximately 85% water, 4% (40g/L) protein, 5% fat, 5% carbohydrates (mostly lactose), and 1% vitamins, minerals, enzymes and acids.

Milk fat has the widest variety of fatty acid composition of all the edible fats – this is great for building muscle cells and powering your body!

Three of the most under-consumed nutrients (according to the USDA) are contained in milk:


-Vitamin D


The main essential nutrients in cow’s milk are vitamins B1, B2, B12, A and D, and the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc. These vitamins and minerals are present in other foods, but it is not always easy to find them in the same high quantities.

In particular, the Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of calcium is 1000mg – a difficult requirement to meet.

Making sure you get your daily calcium is important – studies show that those who are lactose intolerant have a higher risk of calcium deficiency, leading to osteoporosis, lower bone density and more broken bones.

Consuming enough calcium can even help you lose weight! A glass of milk contains almost one third of your daily recommended amount of calcium.

>>Click on the infographic to download it<<

About 80% of the protein in milk is casein. When digested, this supplies amino acids as well as calcium and phosphorus. Casein makes up the ‘curd’ portion of milk, and it is used to make cheese. 67% of milk’s calcium, 35% of magnesium and 44% of phosphate are contained in the casein.

One cool thing about casein is its ability to form a gel in your stomach, allowing the body to digest it slowly. This provides a steady, slow release of amino acids – the building blocks for energy and cells.

The other 20% of milk’s protein is found in whey, which is the liquid left over when casein is condensed into cheese. Whey contains protein, lactose, vitamins and minerals and saturated fats.

Whey protein can reduce your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes!

Whey liquid contains lactose, and depending on the processing method used, whey protein may contain lactose as well. If you are lactose intolerant and drink protein shakes, you’ll need to read the label. Whey isolate is pure protein, whereas whey concentrate contains all the substances in whey, including lactose, and can therefore cause a reaction.

A great source for protein

There are many, many choices when it comes to protein shakes, a great number of which are produced from dairy. To make a good decision with regards to protein shakes, two questions you need to ask yourself are:

Additionally, be sure to read the label – pre-made shakes can contain high levels of sugar and carbs to improve their taste and texture. Making your own shakes from pure protein and whole ingredients isn’t always convenient, but it is the healthiest option.

Allergy and intolerance

There is an important distinction between an allergy and intolerance.

Allergies cause a reaction of the immune system, and responses can be immediate and severe; individuals might experience hives, vomiting or difficulty breathing.

When you have difficulty processing a food, this is called an intolerance. By itself, it doesn’t cause an immune response, but it does produce symptoms that usually manifest themselves slowly and are far less severe.

Up to 4% of adults have an allergy to milk. Commonly known as Cows’ Milk Allergy (CMA), it can be severe, commonly causing anaphylaxis (immediate breathing difficulty), and is almost always discovered in childhood. It can be in the form of a reaction to any milk protein, but most people react to alpha S1-casein.

A smaller percentage of people have an allergy to whey, which is much less serious and can be treated in the same way as one treats an intolerance.

Are you dairy intolerant?

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The best way to determine how your body handles dairy, as with all potential allergens and irritants, is by elimination. Exclude all forms of dairy from your diet for a minimum of 21 days, and then slowly reintroduce them while observing your body’s reaction.

Do you experience bloating, cramping or diarrhea? If so, you’re part of the majority of adults who are lactose intolerant.

How much dairy does it take for you to have symptoms?

Can you live without cheese?

Alternatives to milk

Yogurt and fermented products such as kefir contain very little lactose because the bacteria used to make these products use lactose as a food source. Cheese is also relatively low in lactose as it’s mostly made from casein protein and has just a little lactose left over from the whey.

“Historically, people cultured dairy and this does a lot of great stuff like reducing the lactose concentration. Also, it does help in digesting the proteins a little bit in a way that doesn’t really damage the proteins but just starts breaking down some of the tertiary structure and nothing but good comes of that from a digestibility standpoint.”

Robb Wolf, New York Times Best-Selling Author of The Paleo Solution

For those of us who are lactose intolerant, lactose-free milk, which has lactase enzymes added, is widely available. Lactase supplements are another easy option. You take them just before eating dairy.

Probiotics and fermented foods can also be used to compensate for lactase deficiency because these bacteria digest the lactose for you!

“If you plan to use yogurt or probiotics to improve your digestion of dairy products, it’s important to start slowly and build up tolerance gradually. Often, negative effects from dairy consumption come from simply eating more lactose in one sitting than one’s gut can completely metabolize. I recommend starting with probiotic supplementation first, and focusing on bifidobacterium longum, a strain that has been shown to efficiently metabolize lactose.”

Chris Kresser M.S. L.Ac, New York Times Best Selling Author of Your Personal Paleo Code

Commercialized, pasteurized and ‘fat free’ – nutritionally empty milk

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As you can imagine, because it is a natural product, milk contains a large number of bacteria, both good and bad. To keep us ‘safe’, commercially available milk has been pasteurized – heated to extremes to kill bacteria.

Unfortunately, this process also kills the good bacteria that benefit our guts and eradicates vital enzymes. In some states, however, you can buy raw milk, which is far better for you. You can get it from certain stores, farmers markets or directly at the farm.

One of the main reasons people drink milk is because of its calcium content. ‘Fat free’, ‘reduced fat’ and ‘skim’ milk are totally useless misnomers, and these variations were invented to sell milk to calorie and fat-obsessed dieters.

Milk contains about 5% fat for a reason. Calcium needs Vitamin D to assist it in crossing the intestine wall, and Vitamin D is fat soluble. Fat free milk, therefore, is next to useless – you’re consuming calcium, but not absorbing it.

[Tweet “Fat free, reduced fat and skim are useless misnomers invented to sell more milk”]

Most commercial milk is ‘fortified’. The cream removed to make low-fat milks contains Vitamins A and D, and in order to maintain milk’s nutritional value they must be added back in. Vitamin A deficiency commonly causes night-blindness, and it is the leading cause of childhood blindness worldwide.

Because very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D and because most adults don’t get enough sun (which prompts your body to synthesize Vitamin D), many foods, including milk and flour, have it added.

It also prevents bone diseases, including Rickets, a disease that was common in America until Vitamin D supplementation in the 1950s and is still prevalent in developing countries today. These vitamins need to be dissolved in fat, however, so drinking fortified skim milk still isn’t really useful.

Healthy Milk Requires Healthy Cows

The nutritional value of milk depends on the genetics of the herd. About 25% of cow milk protein is a type of casein called beta-casein. The health benefits of the two types, A1 and A2, have been under public scrutiny for some time.

Commercialization of the milk industry means maximized yield and profit, so large docile breeds of cows such as Fresian Holstein (black and white dairy cattle) are the most popular. These cows predominantly produce A1 milk. Jersey and Guernsey (brown) cows produce predominantly A2 milk.

What’s the big deal?

Cows with A1 genes have a mutated form of beta-casein, which has an amino acid segment cut out. This segment is called beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM-7), and humans don’t produce it naturally. While no causal relationship has been discovered, BCM-7 may be linked to diseases including type 1 diabetes, heart disease, and autism.

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The best milk you can buy is organic, grass-fed, non-pasteurized A2 milk.

If you can’t find that elusive goldmine, it’s okay. You’ll still get the benefits of dairy, just with a little less punch.

If your body can’t tolerate dairy or if you follow a vegan diet, it’s also totally okay to cut out milk products. Just be aware that you need to pay extra attention to make sure you’re getting your recommended daily intake of calcium, Vitamin D, saturated fat and protein from other sources.

So, now that you’ve got the facts about dairy and have found out how your body handles it, you can weigh the pros and cons. Can dairy be a beneficial part of your diet? The decision is up to you.

Shutterstock Images: Lucky Business, Degtiarova Viktoriia, B Calkin, alexpro9500, Alexander Chaikin

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