“Should I be eating dairy?”

 

When people find out I am studying nutrition the questions immediately start pouring out, and the topic of dairy is one of the most popular. There is tons of research on both sides, so I’ll try to sum it up for you.

Evolution and Intolerance

The number 1 argument against dairy is that it isn’t “evolutionary” for humans to consume the milk made from other animals. While it is true that humans are the only species to do this, people have been consuming animal dairy products for hundreds of years, and some research shows that our genes have changed and adapted to accommodate the dairy products we consume.

While some genes may have changed, over 75% of the world’s population is still intolerant to the natural sugars in dairy (also known as lactose intolerance). This is likely due to reduction of lactase production (the enzyme used to digests those sugars) that naturally occurs as we age. Why does it decrease with age? Probably because in distant human history, people didn’t have much dairy in their diet after they stopped breast-feeding.

Calcium and Bones

Because dairy is the optimal food for growing animals, it is packed with beneficial nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, and some B vitamins. Dairy products often get the spotlight for calcium content and bone health – which they should since it can be extremely difficult to meet our daily calcium needs from food without dairy. Several studies have shown that people who consume dairy have improved bone mineral density, and have lower risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. But, other studies have shown that people who are lactose intolerant often have higher bone mineral density and lower risk of osteoporosis. Confusing, right?

More and more research is showing that we should really be focusing on vitamin D when it comes to bone health, but I’ll save that post for another day.

Healthy Fat

While the research on bone health is still “up in the air”, it is pretty well proven that dairy can provide a lot of healthy fats that can decrease heart disease and stroke risk. But there is a disclaimer that comes with this one. The nutrient composition of dairy can differ depending on what the dairy producing animals eat. We only see these healthy fats when dairy comes from animals that were grass fed or pasture raised. And don’t forget, you only get these healthy fats if you buy dairy products with fat in them – low fat and skim won’t have them.

Hormones and IGF-1

Finally, the infamous hormones that people are concerned about. Dairy has been shown to increase a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 is responsible for cell growth – which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It is great for healing damaged tissues and building muscle, but it also means it might help the growth of cancerous cells (that’s why so many people say that dairy causes cancer). While there are few and inconclusive studies showing dairy may increase prostate cancer risk, there are several studies showing dairy can decrease colorectal cancer risk.

In addition to cancer, IGF-1 is also the suspected hormonal link between dairy and acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, and many more.

Conclusions

So back to the original question “Should I be eating dairy?”

Do you have digestive symptoms (like abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea) after eating dairy? If you do, avoid it. You can try lactose-free dairy products be those can also cause trouble sometimes.

Do you have any symptoms of hormone imbalances (like acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, or mood swings)? If you do, try eliminating dairy and see how you respond. Maybe it will help, maybe not, but it is worth a try.

Other than that, it is really personal preference. While there are some potential health risks, the evidence isn’t conclusive and none of the studies were gold-standard clinical trials. If you aren’t sure, maybe you try to eliminate it for a week or two to see if you feel any different and then make your decision. Remember, everyone is different so just because your neighbor won’t touch a piece of cheese doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any either.

However, nutritionally, if you choose not to eat dairy, I would suggest a daily calcium + vitamin D supplement, especially if you are under the age of 30.

Fail to Prepare = Prepare to Fail

With midterms in full swing, my calendar is packed with classes, meetings, field trips (yes, I guess going to the farm is still a thing in college), and research. There is barely enough room to squeeze in my daily sweat session at the gym. Whether you are in high school, college, or in the work force, there never seems to be enough time in the day, and that is when planning becomes imperative. Yes, you have to plan how you are going to get everything done in the day, but I am talking about planning your food for the day. When time is of the essence, convenience is key. It is human nature to do (and in this case eat) what is most convenient. When I have two papers due and a test next week, I’m not spending hours in the kitchen preparing a healthy gourmet meal, nor am I driving to Whole Foods (although I would love to) to get some organic, non-gmo fruit. In order to eat healthy under the pressure of time, planning will keep you on track and save you time in the long run.

Of course meal planning for the week is important to make sure you have healthy food handy (read more here) but also preparing food ahead of time is crucial. I don’t mind eating leftovers and reheating so I like to cook a lot of my meals for the week over the weekend (especially when I know the upcoming week is busy) so every lunch and dinner is in a nice Tupperware that I can quickly eat between classes, meetings, and homework. Having everything pre-made also makes packing lunches (and sometimes dinners for long stays at the library) a breeze. In the morning, I can just grab my Tupperware and a fork and I’m ready to go…well almost ready to go; you can’t forget snacks! If I meal planned correctly for the week, I have tons of healthy snacks like protein bars, nuts and seed, and veggies with hummus that I can put in my backpack.

Having all this healthy food with me at all times makes it 1000 times easier to eat healthy. Instead of running to Einstein Bagels or Jimmy John’s, I have a whole lunch bag full of food when I get hungry. I am also a big snacker, especially when I’m at the library for hours, so having munchies with me prevents me from going for an ice cream run or hitting up the vending machine for some snacks. Not only are those not the healthiest option, but they also aren’t the best brain food to help me study.

Tomorrow I have class from 8:30am to 2:15pm with no break and then I have a meeting with a professor immediately after so here is what I’m packing in my Lululemon lunch bag:

Apple and cheese stick for mid morning
Black bean burrito bowl with guacamole for lunch
Dried Edamame or Crunchy Larabar for an early afternoon snack (I usually bring one extra snack in case I need it)
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All of this is to show you that it can be fairly simple to eat healthy even when you don’t have much time; it just takes a little planning ahead. You have to prepare for your long and busy day ahead otherwise you are setting yourself up to eat convenient and usually unhealthy food (like McDonalds or Starbucks pastries). Making the healthier option the easier option will make you much more successful in eating healthy.

Zucchini Pizza Bites

Craving some late night pizza? Ready to call the delivery man? STOP! Try these Zucchini Pizza Bites. They are super yummy and will be done before the delivery man shows up.

Using zucchini as your pizza crust gives you and extra serving of vegetables and significantly decreases the calorie count compared to regular pizza.

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I’ll admit, it is not the same as fatty, oily pizza, but they are a great alternative. They also are a little messy, but nothing a little napkin won’t fix.

recipe 

Chickpea Feta Salad

This salad is super fast and is a great snack for busy days. It’s meant to be eaten cold so it is easy to eat anywhere, at any time. Just watch out for the feta; try not to leave the salad out of the fridge for more than four hours (although it won’t kill you if it has been out for a little longer).

Chickpea Feta Salad ntrn factsChickpea Feta Salad

The approximate* nutrition facts of one serving are shown here for the ingredients on the recipe.

Want to mix it up? Adding avocado to this recipe is a great way to add in some extra healthy fat and fiber.

Chickpea Feta Salad