There's a lot of controversy about dairy in the health world, highlighted most recently in the viral documentary What the Health. We asked some of the country's top medical practitioners to weigh in on whether dairy was a friend or foe, and their answer was largely: It depends.
"We're all different," Dr. Will Cole explains. "Organic, grass-fed fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir can be a wonderful source of beneficial bacteria; fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2; and healthy fats. Grass-fed butter is another source of vitamins that works great for some people. But some people don't tolerate any dairy, even these clean options."
Dr. Sara Gottfried is one of those who dairy just doesn't work for. "Dairy's a friend if you can tolerate it, but most of my patients are either casein intolerant or lactose intolerant. We are not designed to function optimally by drinking or eating cow milk daily. I'm intolerant to casein, and it has persisted despite years of healing my gut, so now I just eat 98 percent vegan with fish or wild meat thrown in once in a while."
Dr. Terry Wahls takes a harder stance. "Studies have shown that consuming dairy is associated with higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. In addition, this study found that antibodies against casein, the protein in dairy, are higher in schizophrenic patients than controls. If I eat yogurt, cheese, or milk, I trigger a flare of my neuropathic pain." Dr. Wahls personally avoids all dairy, save for ghee or clarified butter, which has little to no casein and lactose (the triggering component of dairy).
Dr. Joel Kahn agrees. "Milk and dairy products are not necessary in the diet and can, in fact, be harmful to health. They are a common source of food allergy causing inflammation and a very common cause of GI upset." He recommends patients consumes a diet of whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. "These nutrient-dense foods can help meet calcium, potassium, riboflavin, and vitamin D requirements with ease," he explains.
So how do you know whether dairy works for you? Experiment on your own body. Dr. Serena Goldstein suggests eliminating all dairy for three to four weeks and noting how you feel, both in body and mind. "Most serotonin (our happy hormone) is made in our gut, and if we are disrupting our gut's terrain with milk, our mood may suffer," she says. She personally doesn't recommend milk or dairy to her patients, as she believes that we, like most mammals, lose our ability to digest milk as we get older. "Intolerance can manifest as acne, alternating
bowel movements, mucus production, hormonal imbalances, migraines, and emotional disturbances," she says.
Dr. Ellen Vora believes that the type of dairy consumed can make a huge difference. "It's worth exploring which forms of dairy serve your body," she says. "Almost everybody can tolerate ghee (clarified butter) because the lactose and casein have been removed. Other forms of dairy that tend to be better tolerated are full-fat, fermented forms of goat and sheep dairy, such as kefir and yogurt. If you can find unpasteurized dairy and you feel comfortable with the risks, even better. An example of dairy on the less easily tolerated end of the spectrum would be a glass of conventional skim milk. If you can find forms of dairy that you tolerate well, it's great. It's nutrient-dense and ranging from delicious to divine. But if you feel bloated or you break out in eczema or acne anytime you eat cheese, it's time to face the music."
Bottom line? If you suspect your dairy isn't agreeing with your body, experiment with removing it and check out your symptoms. And if you do choose to consume dairy, try reaching for full-fat (yes, this includes butter), checking out probiotic-filled fermented kinds like yogurt or kefir, and even experimenting with sheep or goat milks. And remember, at the end of the day, only you can know what works best in your body.