On Dairy and Dairy in Free Kitchen

I both can and can’t eat dairy, and maybe it’s the same for you.

First, a little look into milk. Milk is meant for baby humans and animals who cannot yet eat solid food. Some would even argue that no one should have milk beyond infancy. Nevertheless, dairy has become very common in many human diets.

Most foods in their natural, whole state (whether it is a freshly caught sardine, olive oil, or a stalk of broccoli) tend to have mostly one or maybe two of the three macronutrients: protein, fat, or carbohydrate. For example, a sardine is mostly protein and some fat, olive oil is entirely fat, and broccoli is mostly carbohydrate with a little protein. Milk, however, has almost equal amounts of protein (casein), fat, and carbohydrate (lactose). This makes perfect sense, because the growing human, cow, elephant, or camel needs to be able to get all these needed macronutrients from its one source of food: milk.

Now for something important to understand if you want to experiment with dairy to see how your body reacts to it: The body reacts to and digests casein, fat, and lactose differently. You may have a negative reaction to one of these components of milk, but not to the others. And so you have to conduct nutritional experiments accordingly. I’ll use my story as an example.

During my late teens, I became lactose intolerant. I now know that lactose intolerance is a solid indicator of gluten intolerance. If you are lactose intolerant, there is a very good chance you are gluten intolerant. What is the connection? When you are gluten intolerant and are eating gluten, your intestines are being inflamed and damaged, and thus cannot do the job of producing enzymes, digesting food, and absorbing nutrients properly (which is why most people with gluten intolerance have vitamin and mineral deficiencies). In the case of milk, your damaged intestines are not able to produce lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose (the carbohydrate/sugar in milk) properly, which is why you may end up with digestive problems related to some or all dairy products. If you go gluten-free and give your body some time to heal, there is a good chance you will no longer be lactose intolerant. This is what happened to me; I went gluten-free, and dairy no longer bothered me digestively. However….

August 2010: I went gluten-free. Additionally, for a full year, I experimented off and on with dairy. The result? I was able to deduce that dairy was the cause of my decade-plus of acne. Yes, I was now digesting lactose just fine, but there are other components to dairy. In this case, my body was reacting to the casein protein in milk, and yours may be too. Why? The structure of casein in cow’s milk is very similar to that of gluten, so the antibodies that attack gluten in your body and cause all your gluten symptoms may also be attacking casein (a gluten “look-alike,” in simple terms) and causing similar or other problems. In other words, your body may not be able to differentiate between these two similar proteins, and so both end up causing health problems. In my case, it caused acne, as it does for many other people.

July 2011–February 2013: I did not eat any dairy, except for butter. Why is butter okay? Because butter is the fat extracted from milk and contains only extremely tiny amounts of casein and lactose. So if you have problems with either casein or lactose, it is likely you can still eat butter with no problem, but you would have to experiment with it and see for yourself.

During this time, my skin cleared up amazingly and with little effort on my part. I didn’t wash it with anything special or use any skincare products or medications. I didn’t have any skincare routines or “tricks” for clear skin. As long as I avoided dairy, my skin was fine. Sure, I’d get the occasional blemish, but this was nothing compared to my years and years of not-great skin.

Interestingly, there were a few months, about 10 months into my dairy-free existence, that my skin started to break out and I noticed that I was losing a bit of hair, though my hair had gotten considerably thicker since going gluten-free. After some reflection, I realized what it was: my vitamin D was low. Most dairy in the U.S. is fortified with vitamin D, and having abandoned dairy, as well as not having concentrated on making sure to eat vitamin D–rich foods or take supplements, the vitamin D in my body dropped, causing some mild acne and a little hair loss. So I built up my vitamin D, mostly through supplements, and once again, no more acne or hair loss.

February 2013: Welcome, dairy!

For some time, I had been researching the body’s reaction to non-bovine dairy, dairy that comes from animals other than cows. Most of the world, in fact, gets its dairy from sheep and goats. Information that I read said that many people who react negatively to cow dairy are fine with goat milk or other types of animal milk. The reason is that the casein protein in goat milk, for example, has a significantly different structure than the casein in cow milk. Thus, the antibodies that attack gluten and cow casein often do not attack goat casein because it’s not a “look-alike.” Consequently, it’s not likely to cause problems for those who react to cow milk. Moreover, the lactose in goat’s milk is easier for humans to digest than the lactose in cow’s milk.

After being dairy-free for 1.5 years, and having been sure that my body recovered from it and I was acne-free for quite a long time, I started to reintroduce goat dairy and then sheep dairy into my diet. I’ve had both goat and sheep dairy many times before going dairy-free, but never in isolation, so I never knew how I reacted to them specifically. As of this writing in November 2013, I have no problem with them! I digest them just fine and they do not affect my skin. I haven’t noticed any other health symptoms related to them either. My skin is now in very good shape, though I still don’t do anything special for it. I simply avoid cow dairy and keep up my vitamin D, and it takes care of itself. If I get the occasional blemish, it quickly disappears.

The body does change, and maybe in the future I won’t be able to eat these kinds of dairy, but for now I’m able to enjoy yogurt made from goat’s milk, sheep’s milk feta, and dozens of other non-bovine dairy products.

Dairy on Free Kitchen: Going forward, you’ll see the occasional use of dairy on Free Kitchen! I can eat and will use butter from both goats and cows, but everything else is either a goat or sheep product, and will likely be labeled as such.

The takeways: Here are the most important points in this post:

  1. If you are lactose intolerant, there is a good chance you are gluten intolerant. The body that reacts to gluten often cannot digest lactose, the carbohydrate/sugar in milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, take it as a symptom of gluten intolerance and go gluten-free.
  2. Once you go gluten-free, your lactose intolerance may clear up. However, there is a good chance that even if lactose is no longer a problem, you still react to casein, the protein in milk. This is because the casein protein in cow’s milk is very similar to the gluten protein, and so the antibodies that fight gluten may also fight the look-alike casein.
  3. The casein in goat and sheep milk has a different structure than the casein in cow’s milk, so there is a good chance that you may not react to it.
  4. To experiment with dairy, stop eating all dairy for at least a few months and see what happens. (Dairy is often the cause of acne, for example, which will clear up.) When not eating dairy, be sure you are getting enough vitamin D. Once you’ve gone dairy-free for at least several months, you may want to experiment with goat and sheep dairy to see if you react to it.
  5. Sensitivities and intolerances to food can be triggered at any time, so always be aware of what you’re eating and be prepared to experiment with your nutrition.

One final little tip: Vitamin D and dairy (as well as eggs, chocolate, coffee, and tea) block iron absorption. It’s always best to not eat these foods or take vitamin D within a couple hours of eating your iron-rich meal or taking your iron supplement.