I’m not sure I totally understand why dairy is a designated food group for many national food guides – including The Canada Food Guide. Before starting my job as a Nutritionist with the Toronto District School Board, I read through the Eating Well With Canada’s Food Guide: A Resource For Educators and Communicators several times (check it out yourself by clicking here), and the case for consuming dairy is made with respect to obtaining important nutrients like Calcium, Vitamin A, D, B12, Vitamin B1, Zinc, and Magnesium. The aforementioned nutrients, according to the educators guide, are important for the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth but also for the prevention of the osteoporosis.
The Canada Food Guide states that people should drink 500 ml (2 cups of milk) everyday to ensure that adequate amounts of Vitamin D are obtained. So, it is very true that consuming milk and other dairy products will provide several important nutrients, however, I don’t believe that the whole dairy store is being told. The argument surrounding the legitimacy of dairy as an actual food group can be broken down into three main areas; immediate and long-term health consequences, nutrient density, and industry lobbying.
It is estimated that 7.5% of infants have a true allergy to dairy and by true allergy, I mean that there is an immune response to one of the over 25 proteins contained in cow’s milk. A true allergy is indicated by the presence of an antibody (IgE) which will be detected upon high quality allergy tests such as the ELISA test.
The symptomatic response can be immediate and take place within minutes or delayed where a person will experience symptoms up to 24 hours after eating the food. Common symptoms to dairy allergy include:
Skin: Itchy, Red Rash; Eczema; Hives; Black Eyes, Canker Sores, Swelling of the Lips, Mouth, Tongue, Face, or Throat.
Digestive: Abdominal Pain; Abdominal Cramps; Abdominal Bloating; Diarrhea; Gas; Nausea; Vomiting.
Respiratory: Runny Nose / Congestion; Sneezing; Watery Eyes; Itchy Eyes; Coughing; Wheezing; Shortness of Breath; Recurrent “colds”; Sinusitis
But where this gets interesting is that while 7.5% of infants are allergic to cow milk, many of them will “outgrow” the allergy, however, it is estimated that 1 in 6 of us have a dairy intolerance and that 70% of the world’s population will become lactase deficient in adulthood. This means that there is no antibody, however, we have a problem breaking down the dairy due to an insufficient amount of the enzyme Lactase.
If you experience abdominal pains, cramps, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, or nausea after consuming dairy products, you might be intolerant. When food that we are intolerant to is repeatedly consumed it causes poor digestion overall and inadequate breakdown of other proteins consumed as well as a poor balance of good vs. bad bacteria in our intestines. This may then cause our intestines to become more permeable and allows undigested proteins (diary or otherwise) to enter the blood stream where they are recognized as pathogens. The result is an immune response which may lead to localized or system wide inflammation and is indicated in the progression of conditions such as; colitis, crohns, frequent colds, rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, rashes, poor memory, seasonal allergies, chemical intolerance, fevers, intestinal infections, pancreatic insufficiency, eczema, dry skin, and childhood hyperactivity to name a few.
Experts agree that the number one allergy and food intolerance is diary. But without dairy, we can’t get enough calcium so let’s leave it on the Canada Food Guide. Not quite.
To say that we need calcium for strong and healthy bones and teeth is true. But it’s only part of the story. Calcium works synergistically with other minerals such as Potassium, Magnesium, Vitamin K, and Vitamin D. The overemphasis of calcium without touching upon the other nutrients that are needed to make calcium work effectively is curious.
Women are encouraged to consume lots of calcium to prevent the development of osteoporosis but this is a bit of a band-aid solution because until the dietary factors that are causing calcium to be leached from the bones is corrected, we’ll always be playing catchup. For instance, foods that increase calcium loss should be considered (coffee, tea, pop, chocolate, sugar, grains) as well as items high in phosphorus (meat, grains, pop) since it binds to calcium and can leach Ca from bones. We may significantly increase calcium stores by looking at smoking, alcohol intake, and GI issues that are preventing optimal nutrient absorption. Interestingly drinking milk can actually cause calcium deficiency when there isn’t enough lactase to break it down. The fermentation that occurs in the intestine when we’re lactase deficient causes a build up of lactic acid that subsequently binds to Calcium and Magnesium which means that the calcium can’t be used for building bones.
Countries with the highest consumption of dairy also have the highest rates of osteoporosis.
And what about nutrient density? I would argue that you can get all the calcium you need through eating a well-balanced diet that is high in greens and nuts. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adults aged 19-50 is 1000 mg’s a day. While one cup of cow’s milk contains 288 mg’s of calcium, a cup of soybeans contains 460 mg’s. And if you were to have a salad including 1/2 cup of swiss chard, 1/2 cup of collard greens, and 1/2 cup of kale you’re at 174 mg’s – and think about all the other hugely important nutrients you’re getting from that salad…B Vitamins, Magnesium, Vitamin K, etc. Check out this handout on sources of calcium and here is another one from Dietitian Leslie Beck from The Globe and Mail.
With regards to industry lobbying, it is prudent to recognize that the Canada Food Guide and it’s recommendations have an enormous consequence of the various agricultural sectors. The food industry in Canada is a 100 billion dollar (per year) industry and you can imagine the result of suggesting that Canadians perhaps do not need to consume 2 servings dairy each day. The most recent version of the CFG was created with the advice and suggestions of a 12 person advisory board which included; dietitians and academics as well as the nutrition education manager with the BC Dairy Foundation, the head of a group representing 85,000 oilseed growers, oilseed processors and makers of oilseed-based food products, and the director, scientific and regulatory affairs at the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada. These industries have absolutely no interest in the protection and promotion of health – their primary goal is to enhance the legitimacy of their product and to drive sales. Other main objective is to of course, protect the jobs of those who work in their prospective industry.
I strongly believe that public health education campaigns should be created and communicated by groups with absolutely zero interest in the manufacturing and sale of any particular product or service. It would seem to be in the real public interest to have a food guide created entirely with the influence of scientific research and a deep understanding of food-related behaviour patterns.
The 2003 WHO report “Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Disease” is an extensive body of research surround the cause of the alarmingly high rate of chronic disease we are seeing worldwide. In the report, there were certain foods that were found to have a preventative effect on health, meaning, they help prevent the development of diet and lifestyle related diseases and obesity. The preventative foods listed include fruits, vegetables, , whole grain cereals, non-starch polysaccharides, legumes, fish, fish oils, unsalted nuts, and water. Eating these foods help to reduce incidences of cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. There was no mention of dairy.
Come back soon for more on ways you can tweak The Canada Food Guide to make it work effectively for you.
THE DAILY DL (Dalai Lama)
“History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”
- B.R. Ambedkar
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