Can't have cow's milk? Should you worry?

If you grew up with a Western diet, then cow’s milk was probably always a staple for you. Most of us were given cow’s milk straight after weaning or even straight after birth, if our mothers couldn’t or wouldn’t breastfeed. From that point onwards, cow’s milk or dairy products were a daily occurrence on the menu: Yoghurt, cheese, cream, butter, and milk are consumed every day by most people in the Western world.


Milk Nutrition Cow's Milk nutritionist Southend-on-Sea Leigh-on-Sea

But it is becoming more and more apparent, that cow’s milk causes problems for many people. First, there is allergy: Allergy to cow’s milk is common in babies, particularly those from families prone to allergies. The good news is that most children outgrow it by the age of 5. Work with your doctor to establish whether your child has the kind of allergy that you can challenge (i. e. you can ‘test’ the dairy on your child every now and again) or not. This is important as some food allergies can cause anaphylactic shock. Even if you did not suffer from food allergies as a child, you can still develop them at any time. Again, cow’s milk is at the top of the list of the usual suspects. If you suffer from hayfever, asthma, or eczema, you could be allergic to cow’s milk.

Intolerance – slightly different from allergy – to cow’s milk is also very common. Here, symptoms are not as immediate. They can range from digestive problems, such as diarrhoea, constipation, stomach pain, heartburn, or bloating to less obvious issues such as acne or insomnia. Your nutritional therapist will be able to arrange a test for you. I offer food intolerance testing in clinic.

The above are reactions to proteins from cow’s milk. Lactose intolerance means that the sufferer lacks lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose (milk sugar). Nature did not intend us to continue consuming milk after weaning, so it is normal for a child’s body to stop producing lactase from about 3 years of age. 75% of the world’s population cannot digest lactose. Most Caucasians can, but this is the result of genetic mutation. That realisation has led to a change in terminology: Rather than referring to those who do not produce lactase (the majority) as ‘lactose intolerant’, we are now referring to those who do (the minority) as ‘lactase persistent’. So, genetically, most of us are not equipped to digest cow’s milk (or any other animal’s milk) after the age of three. This tallies with the arguments of the Paleo movement: We did not evolve to digest the products of agriculture, such as cow’s milk (and grains).

Moreover, many people who do not seem to have any problem tolerating cow’s milk choose not to consume it for health reasons anyway. Cows – like all mammals – will only produce milk after they have given birth. To keep the milk flowing they are generally impregnated again while still being milked. Pregnancy increases the amount of oestrogen circulating through the animal’s body, leading to elevated oestrogen in their milk. Ironically, many experts warn about the consumption of soya milk due to the phytoestrogens in soya, when in actual fact those plant oestrogens are much, much weaker than animal (or human) oestrogen. Yet, oestrogen in cow’s milk is rarely mentioned. Cow’s milk also contains insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a growth hormone that helps little calves grow to nearly full adult size within 6 months. IGF-1 has been implicated as a risk factor for certain cancers.

Cows held in factory farms are living in close quarters and are more prone to infection, particularly mastitis – inflammation of the udder. Blanketing milk cow’s with antibiotics – which end up in the milk, too, and contribute to the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics – is meant to take care of that. However, it is perfectly legal to sell milk that contains up to 400 million pus cells per litre.

Are you missing out?

In short: No. There is a clue in our genetic make-up. We are not designed to digest milk as adults, so it is does not make sense that we should require it for survival or to be healthy. No other adult mammals consume milk, and certainly not milk of another species. Anything we get from milk – fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin D, calcium – we can get from other sources.

Cow’s milk is always promoted as the best source of calcium, when quite frankly, it isn’t. Humans managed to grow a strong skeleton for millions of years before agriculture gave us access to milk. And how, actually, does the cow itself manage to build its bones? In fact, research shows that countries that consume no or hardly any dairy have the lowest rates of osteoporosis, while dairy-consuming countries – the UK amongst them – have the highest rates in the world.

By weight, sesame seeds contain more calcium than milk, but of course it is not as easy to eat 100 g of sesame seeds as it is to drink 100 ml of milk. Still, you can make sesame part of your diet by sprinkling it over stir-fries and salads, use gomasio (cracked sesame with salt), stirring sesame into muesli and using tahini (sesame seed butter) in cooking and for salad dressings. Tofu, too, is a rich source of calcium. It is important that you have your 7-a-day, increase to 10-a-day if you can. Green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, pak choi, spinach and watercress are all good sources of calcium. So are nuts, seeds, wholegrains and seaweed, and what’s more: They all come with magnesium. Magnesium and calcium work together, and balanced levels of both are crucial. Milk is not a very good source of magnesium at all.

If for whatever reason you cannot or don’t want to consume cow’s milk: Don’t worry about it. You are not losing out. For more details on milk, read Viva’s report White Lies.

For a low-down on plant-based alternatives to milk, read tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News. It is not too late to subscribe!