When we speak of dairy products, we are all believers of their supposed importance in our diet. In fact, in our minds the importance is not “supposed”, but rather “undeniable”, probably due to their high calcium source. The idea of the high nutritional value of breast milk and media wide advertising campaigns put milk products on a pedestal. However, a debate is underway about the real importance of these products in our diet. In this article, we will explore some of the myths around dairy products. We will see that dairy products are often the cause of certain health problems and that they are often over-consumed by the public and over-recommended by some experts.
Firstly, we will look at some of the allergy problems which are caused by dairy products, since they are quite common. Milk as a product, probably has the highest number of food allergens known. These may lead to allergies of the respiratory tract, skin and digestive tubes. Allergies of the respiratory tract may manifest themselves through bronchitis, sinusitis or asthma. Allergies of the skin are connected to acne, psoriasis, eczema, while allergies of the digestive tubes may cause heartburn, bloating, constipation or bad breath. Of course, when facing these problems, few people make the connection with dairy products. Obviously not all these problems are caused by the consumption of dairy products, but in many cases they can be the source of problems when other possibilities have been eliminated. For many doctors, the consumption of dairy products seems essential so that they may not consider overuse of these products as the cause of many disorders. In many cases, a partial or complete removal of dairy product from our diet for a few weeks will alleviate the allergic symptoms.
Secondly, we will look at lactose intolerance, a very common disorder caused by the poor digestion of lactose, which is a milk sugar1. People who are lactose intolerant must reduce their consumption of products containing lactose or combine these products with other foods. Similarly to the allergy problems described above, lactose intolerance is often provoked by the over consumption of dairy products. It is important to note that dairy products are also found in prepared foods.
What about calcium? It is true that calcium is an essential element to maintain good and healthy bones. However, other minerals are also essential in the development and maintenance of healthy bones. These minerals are often overlooked even though they are as important as calcium. Why then do we hear frequently that people do not consume enough calcium? Possibly because the recommendations are set too high. Why should we believe they are too high? Because biology itself proves that calcium intake is not as important as we think. Indeed, in human milk, we find 34mg of calcium per 100g of milk compared to 132mg in cow’s milk. Milk is designed to meet the needs of its species; biology would have provided richer calcium content in human milk if we had those needs. It should not come as any surprise that while we consume milk of another species containing four times the calcium found in our milk, we are in essence encouraging overconsumption of calcium. It is important to note that calcium is also found in other foods such as scallops, shrimps, sardines, spinach and sesame seeds.
In short, advertising that promotes the necessity of dairy products in our diet mostly encourages overconsumption, which can ultimately be the cause of various disorders. However, going to the other extreme is just as problematic; completely eliminating dairy products from our diet is also not recommended. Rather, we must be vigilant against the excess consumption of all products, including dairy products. Unfortunately, all publicity favoring the consumption of dairy products has another objective; an economic aspect that seeks to minimize financial loss or bankruptcy of dairy companies. It is important to also understand that the field of nutritional research, most specifically as it pertains to the impact of dairy products on health is constantly changing: Scientists continue to discover new truths. But most of all, promoting an active lifestyle seems more appropriate to maintaining a good bone health as well as being good for the whole body.
1 Hill, D.J et al., 1989, J Ped 114: 761.
2 Paige, D.M et Bayless. «Lactose digestion: clinical nutritional implications», Baltimore, J. Hopkins University Press, Éditions T.M. 1981.
VACHON, Carol. «Le lait : si bon pour la santé?», Québec, 1996, 27p.