“Milk, it does the body good” was a popular marketing slogan for the dairy industry in the 1980s. However, since then it has become heavily debated whether the proposed benefits of milk are accurate.
I personally grew up drinking milk every day and fell into the skim milk trend as low fat diets became popular. At the same time, increasing whole grain consumption and the “heart healthy” seed and vegetable oils became the healthy diet guideline. Not long after I had truly adopted these as a part of my lifestyle, I began experiencing difficulty with some milk products. I would have gas, bloating, and poor bowel movements. I later learned that humans weren’t actually designed to digest milk well past infancy and that lactose intolerance could contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. Around this time, the widespread use of hormones and antibiotics in dairy production became highly publicized. I ventured more and more into the vegetarian and vegan realm in order to increase health and decrease my exposure to the toxins in animals raised by conventional agricultural methods. I began eating many of the different fake meat products available as alternatives to real meat.
I must admit that during all of these trends and my diligent compliance, never once did I look deeply into the actual analysis of the benefit or detriment of milk in humans. I also did not question whether or not we humans, who are mammals born consuming only milk, are able to digest milk as adults. Finally, if the argument we are not intended to drink milk was substantiated, the assumption that we are designed to eat the seeds of grass and processed vegetable protein polymers created in laboratories would need similar skepticism.
I will outline three of the most common reasons given today for why milk is not good human food. I will then present the information that helps us gain an understanding of why these are not reasonable arguments. I will not be making an argument for the health of milk, although I will be presenting studies showing data that is in direct conflict with the assertions that milk is contributing to poor health.
I hope this will offer a seed of doubt to be planted as to the accuracy of the claims against milk. I am intentionally leaving out the debate over saturated fat, which will be touched upon much later when I discuss the fat in milk and its potential benefit to our health. However, the general debate on saturated fat is separate from milk fat specifically. The saturated fat topic is being discussed intelligently and at length in many easily accessed resources.
The debate on milk is unfortunately poor and is dominated by arguments which just simply don’t hold up under thorough analysis. It is time for a conversation on the impact milk has on health to be brought into a more productive format. Due to availability and prevalence as a staple food source, it is important to understand dairy’s contribution. This is why I am starting out by addressing what I consider to be poor arguments that have a lot of attention in the media currently, particularly those involving lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a condition that is poorly understood by the majority of the public, including the people discussing it. I will be talking about the current theories as to why the condition exists, the condition as it exists, and what can be done about it.
All of this and more will be covered in the Dairy series immediately following these three coverings Dairy’s many myths and misconceptions.
Argument #1: We are not yet adapted to the consumption of milk because we have not been consuming it long enough.
I very commonly hear it stated that humans were not “meant” to drink milk and that we have not had time to “adapt” to it in our diet. This is a common argument for “Paleo Diet” trends and is a fall back to support the concept that avoiding dairy is a good idea. There are many people looking into the genetic development of the ability to drink milk, which I will address to some extent in Part II, but for now I find it more important to reassess the idea of what we are “meant” to eat and if any “adaptation” is even necessary to use milk as a source of nutrition.
Humans are an interesting species. We have wandered around the globe, changing only marginally both genetically and anatomically, while our lifestyles and diets have become much more diverse. We have used our tremendous mental capacity to adapt to many environments by developing a way of life that allows for our success in spite of the challenges present or the limits of our physiology. As a mammal born consuming only milk, it makes sense that we would view milk as a beneficial food due to observing its ability to sustain the healthful development of an infant. For me, it is not then surprising that we viewed the milk of other mammals as a potential source of nutrition. If upon consuming this milk it did not have adverse effects and we felt nourished, it is sensible to think that our tremendous ingenuity and skill is what allowed for the increased availability of milk as a staple food. The domestication of animals, resulting in the practice of Pastoralism, is the great contributor to the prevalence of dairy in the human community.
But what were humans meant to eat? In my opinion, this is not a construct that fits into nature. It is what humans can eat and can get their hands on that matters. We cannot eat rocks or wood, but milk we can eat. We have not only developed the ability to get our hands on it, many, if not all, communities that have discovered its use as a food have incorporated it into their diets to some extent. In fact, some communities have developed whole ways of life which center around dairy’s sustained availability. This is the natural way of humans, to use our ingenuity to develop a method of insuring the security of a food source. Pastoralism was arguably one of the first practices which provided sustainable food for a community year round.
This does not inherently mean that human health will benefit from milk. It will take much more exploration into the specific effects of milk on the human physiology to craft an informed opinion on that. However, whether or not we are able to consume it, or if we need to further develop in order to consume it, does not need to be debated. My opinion is there was no problem with its consumption any more than any other food that can be digested and absorbed. Furthermore, through developing its increased availability, there was in fact less problem consuming it than many other foods more difficult to attain. If a small amount of milk made people sick with abdominal pain and severe diarrhea as those saying we are genetically unable to digest it after infancy suggests, we would have not pursued it further than our first attempt of consuming it as a food source. Diarrhea has always been considered a severe ailment and would have been avoided thoroughly.
How do we know that humans were able to consume the milk of other mammals successfully when they first discovered the ability to acquire it?
To start, let’s review the history of drinking milk and humans. The first goat shepherding tribes appeared around 11,000 years ago. The discovery of ceramic containers used for milk and the processing of milk have been well-studied and authenticated by archeologists (1). The fact that such time and care was given to maintaining the availability of dairy shows that the food was regarded as very important to the diet of the community. These Neolithic Herding communities popped up all over northern Africa, the Middle East, and northern Europe over a period of about 3,500 years(2), showing that the discovery of milk as a sustainable food source was not isolated and was thoroughly adopted after its discovery by various communities. Over the past 10,000 years, many other shepherding and herding tribes have utilized the milk of ruminant animals as the primary staple in the traditional diet and every one of these communities was successful and healthy.
The shepherding of goats and sheep as well as the herding of cattle involved breeding and care, including rotating grazing fields, grooming, and medical assistance. The industrial activities were milking, storing, and processing of the milk to reduce spoilage. In these communities, the animals were regarded highly and were treated with respect and appreciation for their ability to support and enrich the community. It is unlikely, in my opinion, that a food that was indigestible and produced diarrhea, bloating, and a general un-health of the community, even if only a small amount were consumed, would be pursued in a way that required so much energy. The trapping and breeding of the animals was probably first invented to keep from having to hunt. However, the archeologists who study these communities believe that the widespread domestication of these animals was centered mainly around the use of their milk. Still, the animals were also able to provide meat as food, clothing, tools, fuel for fire, and aided in developing a community social structure and division of labor.
In the early days of milk drinking, the animals which provided the milk were well-kept and allowed to live relatively free as they consumed the green grass and foliage that is virtually non-nutritious to humans due to our digestive system’s inability to break it down. The need for fresh pasture meant the communities had to move regularly and allowed for regeneration of the local resources. The environmental harmony of the lifestyle was arguably much more sound than more sedentary agriculturalists (3). The nutrients provided by the milk were rich in the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that helped the growth and metabolic processes of the human. This increased the quality of the diet and reduced the stress caused by environmental scarcity when compared to the hunter gatherer lifestyle.
Finally, the idea that a new food source cannot be adopted without detriment unless we have time to adapt to it is not relevant. This thinking is rendered a useless determinant of a healthy contemporary diet considering that almost all of the food we consume has been altered significantly from the foods we had available before the time humans began drinking milk. The domestication of our foods, both plant(4) and animal, as well as the addition of synthetic products to our processed foods, has made some foods which were not very edible much more so by our breeding new genetic variants. So, our diet today contains things like broccoli, corn, wheat, and almonds, all of which were nearly inedible and potentially toxic 10,000 years ago. This means we have had just as much, if not more, time to develop the ability to use milk as a source of nutrition than most other foods we have access to in a supermarket. We must use a better method of evaluating what is healthy than how long humans have been consuming it if we are to determine how to best choose from our currently available foods.
So to review, humans found the milk of ruminant animals an attractive source of nutrition and thoroughly adopted it as a part of our diet over 10,000 years ago. The human communities which adopted the pastoral way of life were successful and multiplied. There is no evidence that humans ever could not use milk as a source of nutrition. In fact, there is much evidence that it was a valued and major contributor to the diet of many communities which found its use. Finally, milk has been around in the human diet as long as almost any food available in the form found in our supermarkets today. I am NOT making an argument that milk is healthy just because we can eat it without a need for genetic development. There are many foods which we have spent time inventing methods of increasing its availability. Some of these foods I believe are in fact are contributing to our un-health, but it is not because we need time to adapt to them.
Part II of the dairy series will be up soon and will be dealing with the prevalence of disease in communities consuming dairy.
1) Archaeologic evidence of early human milk consumption
2) archeoligic discoveries of ancient pastoral comunities
3) Pastorist impact on the environment
4)Domestication of plants
Ted Talk about some of the relevance of paleolithic diet concept