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A Dairy-Free Summer


By Taylor Cole

As children, many of us were often told to drink our milk so we could have strong bones. We saw celebrities smiling with milk mustaches in “Got Milk?” advertisements, and we may have been fed diets full of cheese, butter, and other dairy products. Dairy was an essential component of the food pyramid, and we learned to consume 2–3 servings per day. In contrast to the positive perception about dairy that used to be widely held, there is growing evidence today indicating that dairy may not be as healthy as we once thought it was and consuming dairy may even do more harm than good, potentially playing a role in health issues ranging from headaches and acne breakouts to diabetes and cancer. For example, a Physicians Health study revealed that men consuming 2.5 servings of dairy daily increased their risk of prostate cancer. Eliminating dairy from your diet may sound like a daunting task, but luckily, there are many delicious dairy substitutes available—and you won’t even have to go without your favorite summer treats.

Studies have shown that dairy products can affect our bodies in ways we may not realize, primarily because of their milk content. Milk contains lactose, which is a sugar that can be broken down into glucose and galactose. Lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine does not produce enough lactase—the enzyme that breaks down lactose—and your body is therefore unable to properly digest lactose. Symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and gas often occur as a result. Lactose intolerance is a surprisingly common condition—as reported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, approximately 1 in 6 people in the U.S. are lactose intolerant, and 70 percent of the world’s population is unable to properly digest lactose! These statistics call our body’s supposed need for dairy into question.

In our earliest developmental stages, dairy can be easily and naturally digested. Babies’ small intestines produce lactase so that they can digest their mother’s milk. Once children reach the age of three, however, milk becomes less essential to their diets, and their bodies slowly begin to decrease lactase production. Vivian Goldschmidt, founder of the Save Institute and Save our Bones, a program dedicated to preventing osteoporosis by increasing bone density, refers to dairy digestion as a genetic mutation, noting that the human body naturally evolves so that it is no longer able to digest dairy. Consequently, introducing cow’s milk into our diet can be unnatural, and the body may not know how to respond to it.

In addition to its lactose content, cow’s milk may also contain harmful hormones and pesticides. Both natural and synthetic hormones that are sometimes present in cow’s milk have the potential to have a negative impact on human hormones. Ingesting the hormones often found in milk can contribute to the risk of prostate, colon, breast, and lung cancer. Cancer, along with other health problems, is also linked to the antibiotics and pesticides that may be found in cow’s milk. Antibiotics sometimes result in allergic reactions, and the accumulation of pesticides in the body can cause health problems in the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems.

Dairy products have the potential to cause other problems as well. Milk and cheese, among other dairy products, tend to have fairly high calorie, sugar, fat, and cholesterol content, which can contribute significantly to weight gain, risk of type 1 diabetes, and risk of heart disease. Additionally, while the cause is unclear, studies show that dairy sometimes triggers acne and other skin irregularities. Possible causes of the correlation include dairy’s iodine content and the hormones found in dairy.

A dairy-free diet may sound complicated, but making the transition is surprisingly simple, and your new lifestyle change doesn’t mean you have to miss out on your favorite summer treats. Fortunately, there are numerous dairy-free ice cream options as well as other dairy-free frozen treats. The recipe on the next page is one idea to keep you healthy, cool, and satisfied this summer.

In many cases, only minor substitutions need to be made in order to eliminate dairy from a recipe. Substitute milk with almond milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, or soymilk. Soy, coconut, and almond substitutions for yogurt are also becoming increasingly easy to find. There are even non-dairy options for butter! Still, be cautious about which dairy substitutes you choose to consume. Soy, for example, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, can cause symptoms similar to lactose intolerance—bloating, constipation, and nausea—and may play a role in increasing the risk of breast cancer. Additionally, be wary of carrageenan—an additive often found in dairy substitutes that can cause gastrointestinal problems in the body. Don’t merely reach for the first item labeled “Dairy Free” that you see on the grocery store shelf. Read the ingredients list and nutrition facts, and make sure that what you are putting into your body is actually beneficial.

Of course, it is not without reason that we have consumed dairy for so long. Many dairy products are great sources of nutrients, of which the three most prominent, according to Mayo Clinic, are calcium, potassium, and vitamin D. Milk substitutes are often low in these nutrients, so if you are eliminating dairy from your diet, it is important to find other sources that provide them. For example, try calcium-fortified orange juice, spinach or kale, and fish such as salmon and perch to increase your calcium intake. Along with sun exposure, fatty fish and egg yolks are great sources of vitamin D, and potassium can be found in bananas, potatoes, pistachios, chicken breast, and tuna. Be sure to add some of these foods to your regular diet so that you aren’t missing out on important nutrients!

If you are unsure of whether a dairy free diet is right for you, discuss the possibility with your healthcare provider. Then, start out slow. Set a goal of eating completely dairy-free for two weeks, and at the end of that time, drink a glass of milk, and take note of how your body reacts. Even if you decide not to eliminate dairy from your diet completely, you can still make positive changes such as drinking organic skim milk rather than conventional milk. If you know that a dairy-free diet will be beneficial to your health, but you are unsure that you can completely give up some of your favorite foods, try to find suitable substitutions. In time, you will find that your taste buds have changed, and you will enjoy your new dairy-free foods just as much. Even eliminating a few dairy sources from your diet could benefit your physical health—and you might feel the difference.

Recipe from NutritionMD, a division of PCRM.org.
Photo credit: Mything/iStock, natashamam/iStock