Despite scientific evidence that negates the so-called beneficial effects of dairy products, linking consumption to potential health risks, unfortunately, many continue to consume large amounts. Importantly, dairy products are unnecessary in the diet. They can be harmful to health, increasing our risks for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, among others.
Dairy products, including paneer and other cheese products, ice cream, butter, ghee, and curd, contribute large amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat to the diet. Such diets increase the risk of heart disease and cause other serious health problems. Research in children has shown that the sugars, fats and proteins in dairy pose similar health risks for children, encouraging the development of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, development of insulin-dependent (type 1 or childhood-onset) diabetes is linked to consumption of dairy in infancy.
Dairy has been linked to higher risk for a variety of cancers, especially those of the reproductive system. Most significantly, consumption has been linked to increased risk for prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers. Dairy milk contains not only hormones and growth factors produced naturally within the cow, but also synthetic hormones such as recombinant bovine growth hormone that are commonly used to maximise milk production. Once introduced into the human body, these hormones may affect normal hormonal function and trigger growth of cancers.
Besides hormones and growth factors, dairy may contain a variety of harmful contaminants, such as pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins. These can accumulate harming our immune systems, as well as reproductive and central nervous systems. Melamine, often found in plastics, is another contaminant that can be introduced during processing of milk, and is not destroyed by pasteurisation. This can harm our kidneys and urinary tract. All these toxins also promote cancers.
Consumption of dairy can expose us to unnecessary antibiotics. Cows in large dairy operations are at high risk for infections from overcrowding, and are given antibiotics in their feed to prevent infections. Due to the modern dairy practices, they are at high risk for developing conditions such as mastitis, or inflammation, of the mammary glands. Antibiotics used in prevention and treatment of infections can find their way into the milk and dairy products. Not only does this expose consumers to unneeded antibiotics with their associated ill-consequences, it also impacts the healthy bacterial flora in our gut.
Folks often believe that dairy products are essential to obtain sufficient amounts of calcium and Vitamin D. While calcium is necessary for bone health, adequate intake is easily achieved through a well-balanced plant based diet. Plant foods such as leafy green vegetables and beans are excellent sources of calcium. Soymilk provides about the same amount of calcium per serving as milk. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight. Ten to fifteen minutes of sun exposure can be enough to meet the Vitamin D requirements. Many foods such as breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium as well. Supplements for these are also easily available.
For those who are attached to some form of milk in their tea, coffee and cereal, there is now available a variety of dairy milk alternatives—soy, almond, coconut, hemp, flax, to name just a few. With a small amount of effort these can me made at home using a blender. These milks have different, tastes, consistency, and composition, so one can choose based on one’s preferences and needs. Importantly these milks are healthful, compassionate, and do not have the harmful ingredients contained in dairy milk.
It is indeed a myth that vegetarians need dairy to meet their needs for protein or that we need dairy for our bone health. We can indeed meet all our dietary needs by consuming a healthful diet of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, with added Vitamin B12. These plant based nutrient-dense foods meet all our protein, calcium, and vitamin D requirements with ease and without the health risks associated with dairy consumption.
Dr. Uma Malhotra is currently Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington and Attending Physician at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle