I have a love-hate relationship with dairy products. My nurse grandmother “strongly encouraged” that we drink milk with each meal to keep healthy and strong. I have always relished the comfort of a drippy, warm grilled cheese sandwich. Oh, and believe me when I say that nachos were an important part of my emotional well-being throughout college. When I turned 40, the tables turned on me. I spent a year congested and trying different allergy medicines. Nothing worked. Then, I gave up dairy. In 3 days, I was nose breathing, sleeping, and smelling again. Hallelujah! Needless to say, since that point, I have not been the mother who has cajoled my children to down milk or cheese in great quantities.
The Subtle Shaming
Last week, I took my 7 and 13 year old daughters for their annual well-child check-ups. Their smart, warm, adored pediatrician asked if they had milk, cheese, and yogurt on the daily. [Cue danger music]. Not even close. My girls immediately looked to me for back-up, as if they were about to confess to living on Jolly Ranchers. Their doctor’s gaze shifted my way. I offered that we’re not a big dairy family, but they do eat a lot of veggies. Notes were taken. Subject changed. Of course, the self-doubting voice in the back of my mind led me right to Google when we returned home. This is what I found in all the conflicting opinions and dairy information I discovered. (Dairy apparently provokes strong reactions in some, and enjoys a loud, well-funded lobby).
What Dairy Provides
Milk, yogurt, and cheese do indeed provide calcium, but included in the dairy package are some unsavory extras. Beside the fact that many children and even more adults do not tolerate lactose, or milk sugar, dairy products are linked with ovarian and prostate cancer, allergies, and in children, anemia. Dairy products contain growth factors that work well for calves; not so much for humans. It may also have contaminants such as antibiotics, which are sometimes used to fight infection in dairy cows kept in overcrowded, unsanitary pens. Dr Neal Barnard’s Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (which embraces a vegan diet) notes that the animal proteins in milk can leach calcium from bones, and that dairy cows are impregnated each year to maintain milk production. Moms, do you hear this? Ugh.
What Dairy Doesn’t Provide
So, you know that idea that upping your dairy intake will protect you against fractures? It’s not true. Seriously. Dr Mark Hyman cites Harvard’s Dr Walter Willett’s work to point out that populations that don’t eat much dairy at all, such as those in Africa and Asia, have lower rates of osteoporosis than we do. In fact, added calcium may actually go hand in hand with more fractures. So, it’s time to throw that reasoning out the window. It’s so passé.
Know this if you love your dairy:
If milk, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream holds a special place in your heart, choose organic. Organic dairy provides more Omega 3 and fewer Omega 6 fatty acids than conventional does. This is important for maintaining a healthy balance between the two, and for keeping inflammation and chronic disease at bay. Also, don’t feel like you need to keep the flow going. A glass of milk a day is probably fine, but studies have shown that men who drink 2 or more glasses of milk daily are twice as likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than men who don’t. There is some evidence linking a glass of milk a day to a decreased incidence of colon cancer. Yes, this is all about adults here, but kids develop habits that carry forward. Just saying.
When the Milk Mustache is not your Style (well, maybe even if it is)
Whether you love dairy, hate it, or are in between, know that calcium supplies also abound in broccoli, brussels sprouts, beans, and green leafy vegetables. Beans-n-greens. Fun to say. So good for you. What’s not to love? Okay, your littles may not fawn over kale and collards, but sneaking them into smoothies and sauces and emphasizing the yum factor works like a charm. Veggie voodoo. Beans should be soaked overnight before cooking so that their nutrients are better absorbed.
Calcium’s Bone Building Partners
In addition to having adequate calcium in the diet, kids should also have enough Vitamin K, Vitamin D, and plenty of exercise to keep bones strong and healthy. Vitamin K is also found in broccoli, brussels sprouts, and those green leafy vegetables, which have numerous health benefits above and beyond these. Getting your kids out running and playing in the sunshine for a little while each day will help them get Vitamin D and exercise. Vitamin D helps our bodies better absorb calcium, and weight-bearing exercise helps strengthen bones. Plus, the combination of sun and fun is hard to beat, and will contribute sanity to your household. Run. It. Out. Kids.
I’m Ditching the Guilt, Thank You
So, I’m giving up the dairy stress. There are times that ice cream is a necessary bribe (should I say reward?) for my kids. I’m not going to get all uppity about them having a glass of milk, or the occasional mac ‘n cheese. I’m also not going to slink off guiltily when others silently-loudly decide my kids are dairy-deprived. I will remind my crew to savor the ice cream, the grilled cheese, and the ice-cold glass of milk, which, of course, will follow or accompany a heaping pile of vegetables. It’ll be a treat enjoyed here and there, not every day. Bon appetit!