the case against dairy

19 Jul

I love cheese. From cheddar to Gruyère, Gorgonzola to Havarti, and everything in between. My favorite salad dressing is Bleu Cheese. My favorite sandwich is grilled cheese. I love cheesy fries and nachos. I really, really, love cheese.

dairy cows being fed en masse

image provided via public domain from the EPA

Having said that, there has been a nagging suspicion in my subconscious for some time now that perhaps I shouldn’t be eating so much cheese. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t be eating dairy at all. No cream, no butter, no yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, or… cheese. This proposition is a sad one for me, like leaving a lover after many years of fond memories. Most dairy products have suitable alternatives; soy/rice/almond milk instead of cow’s milk, soy cream (actually pretty darn tasty) instead of ice cream, olive oil instead of butter. But I have yet to find a cheese substitute that doesn’t leave me pining for a grilled cheese sandwich.

But let’s be objective. I’ll try to avoid ethical objections to the treatment of dairy cows, for although they are many, they are far more subjective than dairy consumption’s health impacts to the human body. So why is it that I suspect I should eliminate dairy products from my diet? Aren’t dairy products squarely ensconced in the proverbial food pyramid we memorized as children? Don’t we need milk to build strong bones?

First, the food pyramid we are taught as children is a pyramid of lies. It was developed in 1991 by the USDA as a guideline for  nutrition. The problem? First, it makes assumptions which simply aren’t true, such as “all fats are bad”, “all complex carbohydrates are good,” and, most disturbingly, “dairy products are essential”.  Why would the USDA tell us things that aren’t true? In her article, “The Truth about the USDA Food Pyramid“, Wendy Tran writes,

The answer is that from the creation of the USDA, the government had conflicting priorities. How can you protect public health on one hand and protect the interests of the food industry on the other? As far back as 1917, when the USDA released its first dietary recommendations and launched the food-group format, it ignored research that Americans were eating too much, especially too much fat and sugar, because food manufacturers wanted to encourage the public to eat more. The food industry has always influenced nutrition and health through politicians and skilled, well-paid lobbyists who control legislation and nutritional information put out by the government. The 1991 USDA Food Pyramid was more of a political document rather than a scientific one. It encouraged people to eat a lot of everything. This advice certainly helped the food industry and the senators protecting their financial interests. These recommendations have been the foundation of America’s outlook on health, diet and nutrition for a time period that has seen a substantial increase in obesity and diet-related health concerns.

In 2001, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine won a lawsuit on the topic of the USDA’s ties to the food industry. The PCRM showed that the majority of the committee that reviews and updates the federal dietary guidelines had strong financial ties to the meat, dairy or egg industries.

On April 19, 2005, the USDA, now under assault from numerous scientific nutrition groups, launched their new food guidance system called “My Pyramid.” This updated information recommends eating more vegetables and whole-grain products, cut down on certain fats, such as butter, margarine and lard, and consume less sugar. It also suggests that Americans should eat fewer calories, make sensible food choices and engage in regular physical activity. These are all improvements. An increase in dairy products, however, is included in the new guidelines despite recent evidence linking dairy to breast cancer, asthma and allergies.

Could it be true that dairy products cause many of the maladies affecting both children and adults in record numbers? One of the major reasons given in support of consuming dairy products is to ensure adequate intake of calcium. However, recent research shows that relying on animal protein-based sources for calcium actually increases the risk of osteoporosis. The average American consumes far more calcium than is necessary for proper bone health, and the majority of that calcium comes from dairy products. Even more disturbing, dairy consumption has shown a strong causal link to an increased risk of prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and possibly for ovarian and breast cancers.

My own personal health journey involves diseases which can possibly also be linked to dairy consumption. Asthma and allergies, both of which I suffer from, can be linked to dairy consumption in many patients. Most alarmingly, my long battle with the “incurable” autoimmune disease endometriosis might be linked to dairy as well. Last year, on a plane to Oregon, I sat next to a young woman from Dallas. We talked about everything from food to procreation. We were kindred spirits, it seemed. She told me about her friend who had been diagnosed with stage IV endometriosis. Not wanting to have radical surgery, she did some research and cut all dairy products from her diet. 8 months later, when she went in for an exploratory surgery, the doctor was amazed to see the growths, lesions and implants had all but disappeared. This sounded to me to be too good to be true, but the evidence is there to support the possibility. Dairy products have been shown to mimic the body’s existing proteins, and cause the immune system to attack the body’s own cells. Endometriosis, Rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s Disease, psoriasis… these are just a few of the autoimmune diseases which may be linked to dairy consumption.

After nearly two years of symptom-free living after my 2008 surgery, my endometriosis symptoms have started to return; it is this trend that first prompted me to thoroughly examine my nutritional habits. And as if that weren’t enough, I have been experiencing serious gastrointestinal and digestive problems for the past year. After gynecological exams, specialist consults, and a colonoscopy, I decided to take matters into my own hands. And first on the chopping block: dairy.

So although it isn’t without a hint of sadness that I bid adieu to cheese, this is the beginning of an experiment in dairy-free living. I will go 10 days without consuming dairy of any kind, and will post at the conclusion of this experiment whether it has had any impact on my digestive symptoms.

Wish me luck!

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3 Responses to “the case against dairy”

  1. splydara July 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    I completely feel your pain on the dairy factor. I have been mostly vegan for 9 months now, and ice cream and cheese were the hardest things for me to give up. The ice cream part was not so bad, since like you mentioned there are a ton of good substitutes, but the cheese… well there is nothing that I have found to replace cheese, except other condiments, salsa, guacamole, ect….. I will tell you that it is possible to have a happy palate without it thought and the more time that goes by the less I have cravings for it. I just simply enjoy the foods I loved before with other things instead of cheese. For example – we will order take out veggie pizza with no cheese and it really taste good. For nachos we just use guacamole and salsa with beans and it is just as good. I am not saying it will be easy.. especially in the beginning but stick to it and you wont even miss it after a while.

    I would also like to note that we have horrible allergies.. (I live in Texas) and after we cut out dairy from our diet i hardly notice i have them, I have also had a huge cut back in sinus infections.

    Here is a website that has a ton of testimonials on people that have given up dairy… http://www.milksucks.com/index2.asp

    Good luck on this 10 day goal, and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • ThisAmericanDiet July 20, 2010 at 8:37 am #

      Thanks for the encouragement! One day down, 9 to go. 😉 I hear that many people have “dairy withdrawal” issues, but I can’t imagine my digestion could get any WORSE, so I’m not too concerned.

      And yes, there is a very strong link between dairy consumption and inflammatory mucous conditions (like allergies). From eating just a few sprinkles of Parmesan on your pasta, your body creates up to a pint of mucous! Gross! That is bound to make anyone’s allergies and sinus conditions much worse, not to mention digestive complications.

  2. Robyn November 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    I am really enjoying your postings and as you well know, I have been dairy and gluten free for almost 2 years now. The difference is really quite amazing. Having used my body in many strenous ways over the years, I have, in the last few years been dealing with arthritis in my joints and back as well as having problems with allergies that I never noticed before. Getting to the point of needing a hip replacement put me on a path to search out help from an alternative physician, a Naturopath in Portland. She immediately had me eliminate dairy and gluten from my diet. I was in so much pain, I had the advantage of using that for motivation to stop “cold turkey.” I have occasionally eaten something either consciously or unconsciously that had whey or gluten, and had immediate response from my body. Feeling better is all I need to keep me on this path. The cheese thing is sometimes hard to avoid, but again, cooking at home solves that problem. I have really enjoyed your articles and information. This is important information for us all to share together. Glad you are feeling so much better!

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