Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Divisiveness of Dairy

If you're afraid of butter, use cream.
Julia Child

love you Julia Child, and I love a good food debate.
Photo courtesy of

A couple of weeks ago I was out at a paleo potluck and I mentioned that I was having some problematic health issues--extreme stress, extreme cravings and insatiable hunger, constant belly bloating, and accumulating belly fat.

Of course, my very astute paleo peeps immediately pointed out my coffee intake was excessive, and caffeine does drive up cortisol and stress the adrenal glands.  Fine.  I will cut back my coffee intake (and I will miss it sorely...)

But the next thing that came up was my dairy consumption.  What?  Nothing, and I really mean nothing, is as hotly debated as dairy in the paleo/primal health community.  

My friend is a strong supporter of Loren Cordain's work.  He sent me this article:

Dairy:  Milking it for All its Worth

The article is certainly thought-provoking.  Some interesting points on the insulinogenic nature of low-fat diary and even high-fat milk and yogurt.  I had heard of studies that showed an extreme response to not just GI but also other insulin markers.  I had not, however, given much thought to the connection between insulin response from the specific kinds of dairy I was consuming and the belly fat accumulation I am dealing with (which may be exacerbated by my elevated stress levels)--my current health issues seem to be an issue of several combined factors rather than a single food group in isolation causing issues (SIBO, maybe?).  You know how it is when you KNOW the science, but somehow fail to apply it to yourself?

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On a simple level, mammalian milk is full of naturally-occurring growth-like hormones meant to be fed to our infants to cause them to grow quickly--it is meant to "fatten" infants up as quickly as possible.   So why would we, as adults who don't need to be fattened up, want to consume it, right?

It's funny how divisive this diary thing is.  I mean, you've got Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf on one side, and Chris Kresser, Mark Sisson, and Stephen Guyenet on the other side.  They've all read the same research, and somehow come up with completely different interpretations.  It is all too easy to interpret the results of research in a way that reinforces any point you are trying to make.  Chris Kresser has suggested that lab results measuring chemical markers (measuring GI on a scale and its' corresponding insulin markers) do not always equal the response inside our bodies.  Perhaps we have mechanisms within our bodies that mitigate or even negate the insulin response, because alternate studies have shown that high-fat dairy can REDUCE heart disease and IMPROVE insulin sensitivity.  Totally the opposite of what Cordain has been saying.  It is important to understand how studies are done in isolation of other factors--looking at a specific component in milk as opposed to all the elements in milk at once, because often one thing cancels or neutralizes another in its whole form.

So, just to throw a wrench into things, here are some arguments contrary to Cordains' statements about dairy (that I emailed back to my anti-dairy friend):

(this is an awesome podcast with transcript he did after his tv show appearance on Dr Oz, explaining and defending what was said on the show), and:

If nothing else, these all suggest that dairy (the right kinds) are, at minimum, not as harmful as originally suggested.  In fact, most of the big paleo advocates do allow the consumption of butter--the amount of actual dairy that remains in butter is negligible (99% of it is milk fat, the other 1% is lactose and water combined) unless you are casein intolerant--then, rendered ghee is a reasonable solution and it is even more loved than grassfed butter.  
Photo courtesy of
I agree with Chris that it all boils to your personal state of health, or the health of your gut.  If you are already insulin-sensitive, milk--particularly low-fat milk-- may exacerbate the issue.  Anyone with a damaged metabolism or damaged gut biome would be smart to avoid most dairy altogether.

On the other hand, I doubt that butter causes much trouble for anyone except the casein-intolerant (and has proven, in fact, to be protecting against obesity and heart disease, among other things).   I feel that aged cheese, which is low in lactose (the sugar that causes the insulin response), simply makes food taste better, and if eating a bit of cheese as garnish now and then allows us to otherwise stick with a paleo-type diet, then it is a reasonable thing to allow.  As long as it doesn't replace meat in a meal--it should remain a garnish only since it is not actually a complete source of animal-based protein.

Photo courtesy of Dairy Farmers of Canada
Perhaps under my current level of stress, with my cortisol and insulin response not functioning as well as they should, it is not such a bad idea to return to a paleo template in it's most black-and-white form.  In the last few days, having removed dairy from my diet, my body has been acting like I'm on some kind of sugar-cleanse, giving some validity to Cordains' view on dairy.  So maybe it really is a question of your current state of health.  Right now, in my current state, it is not a good thing to consume.  Perhaps, if I were at my goal weight and under substantially less stress, I could tolerate small amounts of cheese and yogurt again, but not so much right now. 

I do follow more of a paleo framework rather than the strict sense of the diet itself--don't we all do that nowadays?  The whole diet is only as good as the science behind it, and the science is changing every day (have you heard Chris's stance on legumes now?)  I am a firm believer in the N=1 style of testing every theory on your body since we all are a bit different.  I really appreciate how the paleo diet has evolved over these past few years, relaxing it's stance on many whole foods that it had previously banned (like the whole safe starches argument that suggests white potatoes and white rice might be better for the metabolism than most fruits due to how your body breaks down simple fructose--but that's another post).  That being said, the minute your health begins to decline again, a return to a strict paleo diet (and sometimes an even stricter auto-immune protocol) is the best bet until conditions clear up.

Here's Mark Sisson's view on dairy, with a tonne of links--more good reading if I got you thinking....

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