Few topics produce as much discord among those aiming for a healthy diet as milk. Some promote it for its calcium and protein, while others claim that it is unhealthy or even unnatural for mammals to consume milk after they are weaned. Others believe that it is perfectly healthy for humans to use milk from other animals as a food source as long as it is raw and unpasteurized, since pasteurization damages the dairy enzymes and proteins.
My take on milk is a bit more moderate. Milk is a perfect food for babies; it contains everything they need to thrive. It naturally provides protein, fat, and sugar, all of which are necessary for growth of muscles, bones and brain tissue, and also helps the baby build immunity.
The debate about milk stems in large part from the fact that many adults become unable to digest the sugar portion of this perfect food. Milk sugar, known as lactose, is more complex than the glucose our bodies use every day to run all of their processes. Glucose is a simple sugar that can be readily absorbed in the small intestine, but lactose requires enzymes to break it down before it can be absorbed.
The enzyme that breaks down lactose is called lactase. Babies are generally equipped with enough of the lactase enzyme to effectively break down the sugars so that they can be effectively absorbed. But lactase production decreases as babies grow into children and adults. Depending on the amount of lactase available, different people are able to tolerate different amounts of lactose.
For those who lack enough lactase to break down the lactose they consume, the poor absorption of the milk sugar can cause significant health complaints. Results can include gas and bloating, diarrhea or constipation, congestion or sinus infections, fatigue, and acne.
Children who tolerate dairy poorly often display excess mucus and recurrent ear infections. When the infections go away, parents may believe the child has “grown out of” their symptoms. Actually, the intolerance may just show up in different ways as the child grows. Adults more often display symptoms of digestive upset or skin problems.
Though dairy can cause trouble for some, it is a very common element in the food supply. It is promoted by various agencies as essential for protein and for calcium to build strong bones. So, what happens if you are unable to tolerate dairy products?
Calcium is indeed necessary for good health, but fortunately milk is not the only dietary source of calcium. In fact, controlled studies have shown that neither milk nor supplemental calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Moreover, countries with the lowest dairy consumption also have the lowest rates of hip fracture!
If you are unable to effectively digest lactose, there is no danger in avoiding dairy products. A balanced diet including calcium-rich plant foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts and legumes, can provide calcium as well as other important nutrients, without the negative impacts of milk.