Should You Eat Dairy on a Paleo Diet? (Plus a Challenge)

By
Apr 23, 2015
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A commonly discussed and debated nutrition topic is: should we consume dairy products? Not even getting into “dairy on paleo” just yet, dairy is a largely controversial food group that some doctors would advise us to never consume, whereas select cultural groups have had it so heavily integrated into their lives that it has produced altered genetics for digestion.

The very basic argument is that humans are the only species to drink milk from another animal, and that it is unnatural to consume a liquid that is meant for growing calves. Infant humans are growing and consuming their mothers milk, and as adults we are no longer growing so we shouldn’t drink milk or other dairy products.

On the other hand, if your body can handle consuming dairy, it has many benefits. To name a few: it’s a great source of protein, fat, and vitamins. It can work wonders to get you extra calories in liquid form if you have a hard time eating large amounts of food, and it’s a highly effective post-workout drink for building and repairing muscle.

Let’s take a look at the nutritional information for 1 cup (250ml) of whole milk (3.25%)

  • 150 calories 
  • 8g protein
  • 13g carbohydrates
  • 8g fat
  • 290mg calcium
  • 98mg sodium
  • Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12

Sounds pretty good right? I think so too, that’s why I consume milk almost every day; especially after workouts. Milk protein is broken down into 80% casein which provides your body with a steady stream of slow digesting protein, and 20% whey for more quickly digested intake. It also may stimulate the release of Insulin-like growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) which plays an important role in childhood growth, and continues to have an anabolic effect in adults.

Understanding the Milk Controversy 

Before we start the great debate, cows fed GMO grain, injected with antibiotics and hormones, and kept in poor conditions will of course produce a chemically infused, low-quality dairy product. We can see the clear reasoning here as to why you should seek out high-quality dairy products from free range, grass fed, non-hormonally induced dairy animals. Like all of our other paleo food choices, we want to consume high-quality organic variants wherever possible.

Saturated Fat

Milk does contain saturated fat, which is becoming more commonly accepted as one of the “healthy” fats after being labeled as disease causing for so long. If this topic is new to you, check out this article on integrating saturated fat into your diet. To sum it up, a recent study on saturated fat found no association between heart disease and dietary saturated fat. 

Calcium Content for Healthy Bones

Calcium is necessary for bone health. So it makes sense to drink milk for your calcium source to keep those bones strong, right? An interesting study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons shows that in countries where dairy consumption is low, rates of osteoporosis are as well. The US on the other other hand has higher rates of both milk consumption and osteoporosis. While there are many cultural differences that could cause this as well, it is some food for thought. 

Full-fat or Low-fat Dairy?

Full-fat dairy products are of course higher in calories, but may be linked to a reduced risk of obesity. A study showed that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is actually inversely associated with obesity risk,. This effect was not found for low-fat dairy products which are often higher in sugar than their full-fat counterpart.

Intolerances

Did you know that an estimated 70% of the population worldwide are allergic to dairy products? That is a surprisingly high number, however check out the infographic below and you’ll see that North America, Europe, and Australia have the lowest intolerance. Keep in mind that there are different levels of intolerance and fermented dairy products such as butter and yogurt can still be consumed by some lactose intolerant individuals. This is likely the most common reason an individual wouldn’t consume dairy products.

Casomorphins

The cheese addiction is real! Casomorphins which are a protein fragment have an opioid effect. Opioids are known for the production of a euphoric feeling, and are extremely addictive. As casein breaks down in the digestive tract, it produces the peptide casomorphin, and acts as a histamine releaser; which is why so many people react negatively to dairy products. 

Now imagine that 10 lbs of milk is required to make only 1 lb of cheese, removing most of it’s water and whey content in the process. Leaving behind guess what? Concentrated casein protein containing high levels of opiates in the form of casomorphin. For some more scientific information on casomorphins, check out this article explaining why so many people have trouble removing dairy from their diet.

Is Dairy Right for Me?

So all of the above information provides fairly strong points for both sides of the debate. Many definitions of paleo exclude dairy entirely, stating fairly that we didn’t start consuming dairy products until past the agricultural revolution. However, it seems that fermented dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and butter have entered and remained a part of many people’s paleo diet; including mine!

In my opinion, if you can handle dairy without adverse effects, then it’s your choice to consume it or not; there is no definitive answer. I will however strongly recommend that if you are going to consume dairy, ensure that it is high-quality, grass-fed, and non-antibiotic influenced.

The Dairy Challenge

This leads me into one of the main points of writing this article. I was speaking with my physician the other day and he had mentioned casomorphins and dairy addiction. I hadn’t heard of this before, so of course I went home and started to do some research. Wow! Cheese and milk have addictive properties, it makes sense since I can hardly keep my hands off the stuff.

This prompted a thought in my mind, I can’t think of a consistent period in my life where I’ve been dairy free. 
When I consume dairy in my daily life it’s milk almost every day, and cheese most days as well. I’m estimating that depending on the day, 10-30% of my calories come from dairy.

This ladies and gentleman, leads me to the creation of my one month dairy free challenge starting April 20th, feel free to follow along with me if you’re in a similar boat. While I feel fine consuming dairy each day, I think it would be a useful experiment for myself and others to see if there are any changes when I cut ties. So let’s outline the challenge.

  • 30 days of no dairy products, this includes butter and fermented dairy.
  • I will document my feelings, mental and physical daily and upload a weekly progress summary
  • I will be keeping my calories, and macronutrient ratios similar.
  • I will record my starting weight, ending weight, and any body fat changes.
  • I will record my performance in the gym, and everyday energy levels

Some other interesting effects to watch will be skin condition, mucus levels, and post-workout recovery times. Dairy products stimulate the release of insulin and IGF-1 which could also contribute to changes in body fat, muscle growth, and recovery.

What to Expect

Overall, the aim is to try to keep everything as consistent as possible - calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. I will train at the same intensity and frequency - powerlifting style compound lifts 2-3 times per week, and record everything quantitative and qualitative along the way.

This personal experiment will provide a solid foundry for anyone having similar quarrels over the consumption of dairy. The claims for both sides of dairy or non-dairy consumption are close enough that in my opinion you just need to see what works for you. Of course that means you may need to do your own 30 day study, but this should provide you a good baseline of parameters to follow when running your own experiment. 

In the following month, you can expect a post each week summarizing that period, and a final post at the end of the month including my conclusion; and potentially whether or not I will continue to consume dairy.

About the author
Scott Wolowich is an advocate of the natural lifestyle, and anything to do with a barbell. He went to the University of Guelph in Canada, and was a competitor on the varsity wrestling team during his time there. In recent days, he focuses on strength training, olympic lifting, and tweaking his diet for max performance. Follow Scott's posts for a dose of real experiences mixed with scientific evidence for optimizing the Paleo lifestyle for athletic performance and everyday life.

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