Dairy is one of those paleo gray areas where you’re supposed to eliminate it for 30 days, then add it back in so you can see whether you’re sensitive to it and adjust your consumption accordingly. Well, I really love dairy, so I never did that.
At Baby C’s 2-month checkup, we asked the doctor if there was anything we could do about her persistent stuffy nose. The doctor said it might be an allergy to casein, the primary protein in cow milk, and suggested I cut out dairy for a month to see if Baby C’s symptoms improved. I figured it was time I finally bit the bullet and entered the ring…for my DAIRY ELIMINATION CHALLENGE (you have to read it in an announcer’s voice).
Is Dairy Paleo?
Dairy is one of the most controversial topics in the ancestral health community. The Paleo Diet ™ (Loren Cordain) excludes dairy because it is inflammatory, allergenic, and full of hormones. Cordain also notes, as do all the vegans of my acquaintance (sigh), that milk is associated with certain cancers.
The Primal Blueprint ™ (Mark Sisson), which I generally prefer, is more nuanced. Sisson points out that the cancer associations are only true of skim milk, and that dairy fat actually appears to be protective against certain cancers. The biggest issues with dairy are the lactose and casein, among people who are sensitive to them, and the fact that dairy is highly insulinogenic (a point of agreement with Cordain).
What About Calcium?
Dairy is an excellent source of calcium, so it feels a little scary to give it up completely. But I’m not worried, because the paleo diet is great for bone health:
- Gluten perforates the gut, impairing calcium absorption. I don’t eat gluten, so the calcium I do eat is better absorbed by my body.
- Meat-based diets both lower bone resorption and and increase bone formation–a one-two punch for bone health!
- I get plenty of dietary calcium from bone broth, wild salmon, and broccoli, which are staples in my diet.
I recommend this article if you have questions about calcium deficiency on the paleo diet.
You Never Know Until You Try
I’ve always been a heavy user of dairy. During my first pregnancy (pre-paleo), I was drinking two gallons a week of skim milk! (Naturally, I switched to whole when I went paleo–and I now passionately agree with Ron Swanson that skim milk is just water lying about being milk.) I never noticed any problems I attributed to dairy, but I was open to the possibility that I’d learn something. After all, I never thought I was sensitive to grains until I cut them out and realized that knee pain, bad skin, and unstable energy levels weren’t normal.
The First Two Weeks Were Twice as Long as the Last Four Weeks
It was really hard at first. I had to cook my eggs in olive oil instead of butter—which, let’s face it, is substantially less delicious. I tried coconut milk in my coffee, but the texture was weird and the flavor too strong. I switched to almond milk, which was pretty good, but I worried about the Omega-6s—so I ultimately switched to black (which was not as bad as I expected).
My 30-day dairy elimination challenge ended up being a 45-day dairy elimination challenge because Baby C got sick again on day 28. Since her principal symptom that could potentially be dairy-related was a stuffy nose, I had to wait until her cold was gone before I could test whether dairy caused her problems.
The good news is that change is really only hard at first. After a while, I just got used to it. It was just like giving up grains–it’s a big life change at first, but once you figure out ways around the role a food group plays in your life, it’s no big deal to keep going. In my case, I had the added benefit of being able to tell myself that I was in this as much for Baby C as for myself.
Test One: Lactose
Lactose intolerance is widespread around the globe (65% of humans!). Most adults stop producing sufficient lactase, which is required to digest lactose, after infancy. However, people of Northern European ancestry, like me, often have the lactase persistence gene—which means we keep producing enough lactase all our lives to enjoy milk.
The lactose-sensitive experience rumbling guts, diarrhea, cramps, and bloating.
My hypothesis was that I would have no problem with lactose.
Test Two: Casein
Casein is a protein that’s structurally similar to gluten. Some people are allergic to it and experience autoimmune-type symptoms and perforated intestinal linings, just like with gluten.
Since I know I am sensitive to gluten, my hypothesis was that I might notice some sort of inflammatory impact, probably in my joints.
The good news is that cream and butter (especially clarified butter, or ghee) have almost no lactose or casein, and can therefore be enjoyed by most people with no problem.
Since the worst-case scenario still allows me the most delicious forms of dairy, let’s proceed.
On my first day back on dairy, I had organic whole milk (supplemented with fish oil)* in my coffee and Kerrygold grass-fed butter on my eggs. Around lunchtime, I felt so bad that I had to lie down for the rest of my toddler’s naptime. Uh oh, could I be lactose intolerant? I had the rumbling, the cramps, and the bloating–and pretty bad digestive discomfort, although, thank God, I was spared the diarrhea.
For the next few days, I didn’t have any milk, but just ate plenty of butter and put half-and-half in my coffee. I made a custard with cream and half-and-half and ate a lot of it. No symptoms worth writing home about.
Friday morning, I had a breakfast meeting during which I enjoyed three big (decaf) cups of coffee with an approximation of whole milk (a little 2%, a little half-and-half), because that’s what was available. Again with the cramps and bloating! And this time with bonus super-smelly farts.
Today, I have only had half-and-half. A little bloating.
*Funny story about that: During my dairy elimination challenge, I read a ton about dairy, and I decided it was a category worth prioritizing when I consider what to “trade up” for in terms of quality. I made the switch to this new kind of milk for my toddler during the time I wasn’t drinking any. So about a month went by before I had any. When I finally did have some, I realized it tastes terrible!! Fish oil is really healthy, but it does not taste good in milk, in this observer’s opinion. Sorry, Baby A!
A Note about Acclimation
The discomfort I felt on Day 1 of reintroduction was by far the worst. Subsequently, I still felt bad when drinking milk, but it didn’t knock me flat.
This is good and bad. It’s great that my body is so smart–it knows how to minimize discomfort caused by stuff I shouldn’t be consuming. But it’s also a little bit bad that my body is so great at acclimatizing to bad things–because it means that the signals I get about how important it is to avoid certain foods get somewhat muted over time.
This is why elimination challenges are so powerful. Just because you are currently tolerating something fine does not necessarily mean it’s optimal for your body. It might just be that your body has learned ways to minimize the symptoms, even while the foods are still causing damage.
So What’s Next?
Butter and I are still deeply in love, so I feel very fortunate that it doesn’t appear to cause me any problems. I will continue to use butter, but I’m going to experiment with clarifying it at home. Not only does it remove the lactose and casein, but clarifying butter also makes it a better cooking fat by increasing the temperature at which it will burn.
Milk and I are breaking up, but remaining on civil terms. My desire to consume it is very low now that I know how it makes me feel. This is not to say I will never drink milk again–in fact, I’m sure I will–but I am going to make different choices when it’s easy. Notably, my whole milk lattes will become breve lattes, because my reaction to half-and-half is very tolerable, whereas my reaction to milk is pretty uncomfortable. Besides, higher fat dairy tastes better anyway, so it hardly feels like a sacrifice.
I didn’t mention other dairy products before because I don’t consume them regularly. I knew before my challenge that cream cheese makes me feel like my intestines are being turned inside out, so I wasn’t eating much of that anyway. I do love a good fine cheese, but they’re so expensive I rarely buy them, and cheap cheese doesn’t do it for me. But for my next extravagant cheese treat, I will probably choose goat cheese–it is less allergenic because it has a different form of casein that is closer to what is found in human breastmilk.
I may do a little more test-and-learn with other forms of dairy that I do consume infrequently. Yogurt and kefir, since they’re fermented, contain lower levels of lactose and might not make me feel bad. I may try cottage cheese too, because I like it–although it is mostly casein and low in good dairy fat, so I’m not optimistic.
But Enough About Me
So what about the baby?
She got sick on Day 2 of reintroduction. Coincidence or causation??
I’m going to do a little more test-and-learn for her. I would be ok with cutting out liquid dairy altogether now that I have learned to enjoy black coffee. But I sure would like to eat butter. So that’s going to be our next test. The learning never stops in these parts.