The Paleo diet and general ‘primal living’ are currently very popular concepts among dieters, those trying to shed some pounds and those who want to become stronger. The general idea is that by eating a diet closer to the one we would have eaten in the wild and by living a lifestyle closer to the one we would have lived during our evolution, we will be able to improve our general health, fitness and wellbeing.
And this makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective. We evolved in such a way as to thrive on the foods we had available in our natural environment. Likewise, we evolved to thrive on a certain lifestyle and with a certain amount of exercise. Our bodies haven’t had a chance to adapt to our more modern style of living and thus if we go back to the way we used to live, we’ll be living in the way that our body was designed to thrive on. So far, so logical.
Paleo diets take this idea to the extreme. They state: ‘if we couldn’t eat it in the wild, then we shouldn’t eat it now’. That means no processed foods, no sugary snacks and no McDonald’s chips. Instead, they eat proteins, vegetables, fruits and nuts. And most people feel a lot healthier as a result because they’re getting more nutrition and consuming fewer ‘empty calories’.
So far so good!
The problem is when this idea gets taken to its most extreme conclusions. The biggest advocates of a Paleo diet won’t eat bread and they won’t eat dairy. Why? Because it wasn’t around during our evolution.
I’ve talked about the folly of leaving bread out of your diet in the past. Unless you have Celiac’s disease or you’re genuinely gluten intolerant, there is no good reason to stop eating bread.
And the same goes 100% for milk.
Why People Have Turned Against Milk
Unfortunately, a large portion of the internet has turned against milk and you get a lot of people telling you shouldn’t consume it. What started as a Paleo idea has quickly gone mainstream as media outlets have run with the story.
So what’s the problem with milk?
Well, other than the argument that it’s ‘not natural’ to drink milk (and that all other animals stop drinking milk once they mature), you also hear the following arguments:
- We can’t digest milk properly and it thus causes lethargy and brain fog
- Milk reduces calcium and actually makes our bones more brittle
I’m going to explain to you now why both these points don’t hold any water. Or milk for that matter…
If you read blog posts written by people who have boarded the ‘no milk’ train (the weirdest train of them all), you’ll see that they often point to the fact that ‘60% of adults can’t digest milk properly’. That sounds pretty serious, right!
This might lead you to think that you probably can’t digest milk either and that you should therefore stop drinking it.
Not so fast!
Yes, 60% of adults cannot drink milk without getting digestion problems. But that is 60% of the global population. And included in that category are 95% of Asians and 75% of African Americans. For Caucasian Americans though, the percentage is much lower at around 10%. That means that if you’re white and you live in the US or Europe, there’s a 90% chance that you can probably digest milk just fine.
The reason for this extreme difference is actually that most of the world is lactose intolerant. In fact, some people have suggested that the term should be ‘lactose resistant’ for those of us who can consume milk.
But seeing as you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you are a native English speaker. And with that in mind, you are statistically likely to be able to drink milk and at dairy with no problem.
Moreover, if you are lactose intolerant, then you will know about it. If you’re lactose intolerant, then you will likely get diarrhoea when you consume dairy. Just like our furry friends, you probably stopped producing lactase when you were younger, which is the enzyme that breaks down lactose. This then means that the lactose isn’t properly digested and the lactose sugars end up building up in the colon. Here they end up fermenting and that produces cramps, bloating, nausea and diarrhoea.
Regardless of your race, if you don’t experience bloating after you consume dairy then you aren’t lactose intolerant. This means that you can digest it and you have no reason to stop consuming it. So you’re fine!
Why is there this difference between races and their tolerance to lactose? It’s actually thought that this might be to do with genetics and that this lactose intolerance can be traced back to farming in Europe. During this time, some individuals may have developed mutations that allowed them to drink milk and this trait was so beneficial as to ensure that it ended up being the case for 90% of the population.
If this theory is correct, then it certainly suggests there are some very strong benefits to being able to drink milk!
What About Calcium?
So what about the concerns people have regarding calcium in the bones? Well, turns out that this is another knee-jerk reaction with little founding in science.
For years, milk has been recommended as a source of calcium and as something that can be used to strengthen bones and prevent problems like osteoporosis.
But the worry is that the body can only digest a small portion of the amount of calcium in each cup (300mg) making milk little better than other sources of calcium. More concerning is the fact that the milk acidifies the body’s pH levels and triggers a reaction that calcium is used to neutralize. This calcium is thought to be taken from the bones and then expelled in the urine.
But there’s actually very little reason for us to be worried about this.
If you look at where the study came from, you’ll find that the results have been someone exaggerated and misinterpreted. Actually, the concept originates from a paper called ‘Case-Control Study of Risk Factors for Hip Fractures in the Elderly’ (1).
Here it was found that elderly people in homes who drank lots of milk were no less likely to have suffered hip fractures. In fact, consumption of dairy products at the age of 20 years was found to be mildly associated with hip fracture!
“Consumption of dairy products, particularly at age 20 years, was associated with an increased risk of hip fracture in old age.”
But as any good science student knows, you can’t establish causality from a correlation. That is to say, that this doesn’t tell us that the dairy products caused the hip fractures. The study also found that alcohol consumption wasn’t associated with hip fracture – and we know that alcohol negatively impacts bone strength.
The study was only looking at people already in hospitals and does not address the countless confounding variables that longitudinal studies like this present – nor the issues with self-reporting. What’s more, the study only looked at 209 cases.
The whole concept of the diet affecting blood pH is pseudoscientific at best and even if you do believe that the pH level of milk can impact on your calcium stores, it’s worth point out that meats have the exact same impact – only they don’t contain as much calcium to compensate.
In short? Milk might not be as beneficial in terms of calcium as some thought but it remains one of the best sources we have and any move to remove it from the diet would be very premature (there’s a cheese joke there somewhere).
You might have read everything I just said and found yourself getting very angry. Maybe you’re already completely sold on the idea that milk is bad for you and nothing is going to change your mind. That’s fine. Avoiding dairy in your diet isn’t going to cause you any harm and especially when you consider that a large portion of the population can’t drink it at all!
But just remember that milk is very nutritious in a lot of other ways. It’s a great source of protein, it’s high in various other minerals and vitamins and it’s delicious! Milk is designed to provide growing animals with all the nutrients they need in childhood in order to grow bigger and stronger. This very much suggests that it’s something of a goldmine when it comes to fuelling our own bodies too!
Oh and if you’re going to go ‘no lactose’, then you have to avoid ice cream too. Still sure it’s such a good idea?