H for Health

An important prerequisite for you to be able to make free choices regarding your diet is that you can make informed decisions

Humans are unique among mammals in consuming milk from other species throughout their lives. A common perception is: “I drink milk to get calcium, so I get strong bones.” However, the reality is different: the countries where people have the highest intake of dairy products also have the highest incidence of osteoporosis and hip fractures.

The dairy industry is big business. The industry’s narrative about calcium and health has led to the belief in Western cultures that it is normal, natural, and necessary to consume dairy products throughout life, instead of getting calcium from the same source as cows do, namely from the plants they eat. To make dairy products tolerable in recommended daily amounts, the industry has adjusted the milk’s fat content, and to some degree its sugar content.

Dairy products, sourced from cows and other animals, have long been a staple in Western dietary patterns and guidelines. The recommendations have been well supported by the powerful lobby of the dairy industry, including research sponsored by the dairy industry with the purpose of promoting the use of dairy products. An example of the dairy industry’s lobbying is the school milk scheme in public schools in Denmark organized by the Danish Dairy Board. At the start of school, all children and their families receive a 160-page book: ‘The Parent Handbook, Healthy and Happy School Start.’ It is described as ‘a kind of guide to daily life as a school child family.’ This book is not published by the Danish Ministry of Education or the Danish Teachers’ Association, but by the Danish Dairy Board and represents well-organized, hidden advertising for dairy products.

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In some dietary guidelines, the recommended amount of dairy products in the diet is, however, decreasing. In other guidelines dairy products have been made entirely optional and can be included in modest amounts. This is the case, for example, in “The EAT Lancet Commission Report” from 2019. It recommends a predominantly plant-based diet for the benefit of health and planetary well-being. Canada has already completely removed the recommendation to make dairy products a staple of the diet in their 2019 dietary guidelines. Now, the recommendation is to prefer water over cow’s milk.

In parts of the world where people do not have access to a sufficient and nutritious diet, dairy products can be an important source of nutrients. Current health knowledge indicates that moderate dairy consumption is acceptable. This moderate intake refers to a daily dairy consumption that is significantly lower than what is commonly observed in many Western countries. For those of us who are privileged enough to choose what and how much we eat, here are several reasons to consider to what extent dairy products should continue to be a staple in our diet:

The Calcium Paradox  

Research has shown that countries with the highest intake of dairy products also have the highest incidence of hip fractures and the highest prevalence of osteoporosis. The WHO calls this the ‘calcium paradox’. While this doesn’t establish causality, it’s evident that consuming dairy isn’t the sole solution to preventing fractures. Provided we get enough nutrients through our diet, we primarily build strong bones through weight-bearing exercise.

WHO has concluded that a daily intake of a minimum of 4-500 milligrams calcium per day is sufficient to prevent osteoporosis and fractures. The official recommendations in many Western countries are higher than 4-500 milligrams calcium per day. These recommendations are based on populations with a very high daily intake of animal protein and ultra-processed, salty foods and a low intake of plant-based calcium-rich foods. A high intake of salt and protein in the diet increases the excretion of calcium. A plant-based diet typically provides 500-600 milligrams of calcium daily. Research has shown that calcium in plants is absorbed better than calcium in animal foods. In addition, our body is able to up-regulate the absorption of calcium from the diet if the calcium content in the diet is low. There is therefore good evidence that we can meet our calcium needs on a varied plant-based diet with a sufficient intake of calories. If we aim to reduce or entirely remove dairy products from our diet, it’s advisable to consider supplementing with a calcium supplement. This is especially important until we regularly incorporate a sufficient amount of calcium-rich, plant-based foods into our new dietary pattern. Vitamin D promotes the absorption of calcium from the diet, which is why it is also important to get enough vitamin D.

Kale, broccoli, tofu, seeds, tahini, nuts, and legumes are excellent sources of plant-based calcium. Additionally, calcium-enriched foods like soy yogurt and soy milk alternatives are also good choices.

Dairy Production, Environment  and Sustainability

Global animal food production significantly contributes to climate change. Industrial production of dairy products leads to greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, water resource depletion, land grabs for farming, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and increased antibiotic resistance.

Compared to any plant milk, almost three times as many greenhouse gasses are emitted in the production of one glass of cow’s milk, and ten times as much land is used (see the table below). The land area is important as we need to free up as much land as possible for rewilding nature to preserve biodiversity and to plant trees that can capture CO2 from the atmosphere. Significantly less water is also used to produce plant milk compared to cow’s milk. This is especially true for soy milk and oat milk.

Animal Welfare 

Cows are herd animals. They are intelligent and social creatures that establish lifelong friendships. They have very strong maternal instincts and protect their calves from anything perceived as a threat. In nature, a calf suckles from the cow for 9-12 months before it is weaned. If the calf is a heifer, it stays with its mother for the rest of its life. There are strong social bonds between cows and their daughters. Bull calves, after 10-12 months, are chased away from the herd and live in bachelor groups until they are ready to take over their own herd. The natural environment for cows is the pasture, where they can eat, rest, and participate in the herd, taking into account their natural social behavior.

Just like humans, a cow must give birth to a calf before it can produce milk. In modern agriculture, the cow and its calf are separated within the first day. This is to prevent the calf from drinking its mother’s milk, so that the milk can instead be used for dairy products for humans. Both the cow and the calf react violently to this separation and call for each other for days.

Over the years, cows have been selectively bred to increase milk production. Modern dairy cows can now produce up to 40 liters of milk per day, approximately four times the daily consumption of a calf. As a result of this intensive production, cows are often milked multiple times a day, pushing them to their limits. This practice has led to significant production-related diseases, such as mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland often caused by trauma or infection. Mastitis is both common and painful for the cows, requiring antibiotic treatment. The genetic selection and the cramped barn environment in factory farming have also led to significant problems with lameness and hoof health. These conditions are painful for the cows and they often require antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics are utilized in food production both to treat infections and as a preventive measure in animal feed. It is estimated that globally, 73% of all antibiotic use is for animals in food production. This widespread use contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which pose a significant risk of causing diseases in humans.

Cows in factory farms frequently do not experience natural environments or graze on grass. They often suffer from injuries due to cramped conditions, inadequate flooring in barns, and sharp components in automatic milking systems. The limited space can also result in competition for food and social conflicts among the cows. While cows can naturally live up to 25 years, in modern dairy production, it’s common for them to be slaughtered at just 3-4 years old. By this age, they are typically exhausted due to the immense strain of continuously producing large volumes of milk daily.

Hormones in Milk

Cow’s milk naturally contains various hormones, including estrogens and growth hormones, which are essential for a calf’s rapid growth – typically 0.5-1 kilogram per day in the first six months. Calves grow 40 times faster than human babies. The milk produced in today’s factory farms is considerably different from what it was 50 years ago. To enhance milk production and make dairy farming economically feasible, cows have been bred to produce more of the growth factor IGF-1. Additionally, due to modern intensive farming practices, about 75% of the milk consumed today comes from pregnant dairy cows.

During pregnancy, the levels of estrogens and growth hormones in the cows’ blood and especially in their milk are significantly higher. In the production of dairy products, the concentration of hormones is further increased. In cheese and cream, the concentration can be up to five times higher, and in butter, it is ten times higher. A few hours after drinking a glass of milk, increased concentrations of sex hormones can be detected in our urine.

Consuming milk from a pregnant animal is not typical in nature. Mammals, including humans, tend to be less fertile while breastfeeding. It is common for mammals  to wean their offspring before becoming pregnant again. Mammalian milk is the result of millions of years of evolution. It is a hormonal mixture that is physiologically intended solely for a newborn organism during the breastfeeding period. The implications of lifelong consumption of today’s dairy products, especially in the quantities seen in the Western world, have not been fully elucidated.

Saturated Fat in Milk

Approximately 65% of the fat in milk is saturated fat. Health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), advise limiting saturated fat in our diets and replacing it with unsaturated fats. This is due to association of saturated fat with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. In response to these health concerns, the dairy industry has developed a range of low-fat dairy products. These products aim to mitigate the health risks associated with milk fats and to lower the calorie content of dairy items.

Lactose Intolerance and Milk Allergy

Lactose, or milk sugar, is a natural component of milk. However, about 70% of the global population is lactose intolerant, making lactose the most common cause of food intolerance worldwide. In many individuals, the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digesting milk, diminishes after childhood. This biological change prompts questions about whether humans are meant to consume dairy products throughout their lives. The ability to digest milk into adulthood is predominantly found in individuals with North European ancestry. In many parts of the world, dairy products are not commonly included in diets, or are included only minimally, due to the prevalence of lactose intolerance.

Milk allergy affects up to 4% of all children. There is research indicating that dairy product consumption may exacerbate atopic diseases and predispose individuals to asthma, eczema, and other food allergies.

Milk and Chronic Diseases

The concentration of hormones in milk and other animal products is small but nonetheless appears to have an effect on our bodies. A study has shown, for example, that the frequency of twin pregnancies in vegan women, who do not consume dairy products, is 1/5 of the frequency of twin pregnancies in vegetarians and meat-eaters. Researchers believe this may be related to the fact that vegan women typically have a lower concentration of the growth hormone IGF-1 in their blood. The growth hormone IGF-1 is naturally present in our bodies and stimulates growth and development in children, among other things. The level of IGF decreases when we are fully grown. A high intake of milk and other animal proteins in the diet stimulates the body’s own production of IGF-1 and results in persistently higher concentrations of IGF in our blood.

Research suggests that hormones in milk may potentially increase the risk of certain chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, eczema, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and reproductive diseases in men. In the Western world, more than 85% of teenagers suffer from acne, and for almost half, the problems continue into their 20s. Here, research suggests there is a link with the intake of dairy products. Regarding cancer, the research is not entirely conclusive. The strongest evidence for a possible link between dairy product intake and cancer concerns prostate cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in men. This link is believed to arise from milk’s ability to increase the concentration of IGF-1 in our blood.

Alternatives to Cow's Milk

In recent years, a wide array of plant-based milk alternatives to cow’s milk has become available. These alternatives are generally free from cholesterol and have little to no saturated fat. They also naturally lack lactose and milk proteins. However, it’s important to note that many plant-based milks are low in nutrients and may contribute primarily empty calories to the diet. Among these alternatives, soy milk stands out as the least processed and most nutrient-rich option. It has a protein content comparable to that of cow’s milk. Plant-based milks have a longer shelf life compared to fresh cow’s milk and don’t require refrigeration before opening.

This makes them a more sustainable option. Additionally, their long shelf life allows for bulk purchasing when on sale. Be aware, some plant-based milks are enhanced with added sugars, salt, oils, and thickeners, classifying them as ultra-processed foods. Recent research links ultra-processed foods to various health issues (as discussed in our film ‘How Ultra-Processed Foods Are “Designed” to Be Addictive’). It’s advisable to choose an organic plant-based milk alternative containing only ingredients like soy, oats, almonds, or similar, along with water. It may be fortified with calcium and vitamins.

If you’re considering reducing or eliminating dairy from your diet, remember to be patient. Research indicates that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. Be prepared for a transition period where things might taste different. As time passes, you’ll likely find that you no longer notice the difference in taste when using plant-based milk alternatives in your coffee or with your breakfast cereals.

Here Are Some Practical Tips for Reducing or Eliminating Dairy Products from Your Diet

  1. Drink water
    Drink water instead of milk.
  2. Plant-based milk
    Use plant-based milk in your coffee or tea. There are many different types on the market. Try a few and find out which ones you like best. Opt for calcium-enriched organic versions without added oils, salt, sugar, and thickeners (check out our informative film on  ‘How Ultra-Processed Foods Are “Designed” to Be Addictive’).
  3. Plant-based milk or yogurt
    Replace milk or yogurt in your breakfast or your smoothies with organic plant-based alternatives. Replace cow’s milk-based ice cream with organic plant-based ice cream.
  4. Plant-based sour cream
    Replace sour cream made from cow’s milk with organic plant-based sour cream.
  5. Omit the dairy
    Consider whether the dairy product can be completely omitted. For example, guacamole tastes fantastic without the addition of sour cream, and dressings with sour cream can be replaced by, for example, tahini-based dressings.
  6. Nutritional yeast
    In dishes where you are used to using cheese, nutritional yeast is a fantastic alternative to give the dish the familiar taste of cheese. You can easily make an alternative to parmesan cheese by blending cashew nuts with nutritional yeast and seasoning with a little garlic powder and smoked paprika.
  7. Tofu
    Silken tofu is a mild, soft, and creamy variant of tofu that can be used in everything from smoothies and dressings to desserts. It also works fine as an alternative to fresh mozzarella in tomato salad.

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