Why Go Dairy-Free (or not): The Great Dairy Debate (and dairy-free alternatives)

Pass the Cheese Please… Or not.

So one of the things I miss most since I upgraded my diet after diagnosis is cheese. I am not alone. Cheese is one of the foods people miss most when they go dairy-free or vegan. I briefly dabbled with going vegan in the past but cheese was my downfall – I didn’t want to give it up. It’s just soooo gooooood. The textures, the nuanced flavors, the saltiness, the creaminess, the chewiness. It’s so darn satisfying.

And apparently it’s actually quite literally kinda addictive. It’s not just that we miss the flavor when we give it up… our taste buds and brains truly crave it the way we crave sugar. Sugar and caffeine aren’t the only foods we become addicted to: dairy – and cheese in particular – can have a similar effect in the body.

Cheese Addiction: It’s a thing

A study showed that basically the more processed and fatty a food is, the more addictive it is. Hello pizza. And we can blame the cheese in particular for that one. Because cheese also happens to contain casein, a protein found in all milk products that when broken down during digestion releases casomorphins, which are a class of opiates. These opiates interact with dopamine receptors in the brain – our pleasure receptors – and trigger factors that contribute to addiction.

But that’s not all casein has earned a bad rap for.

Casein and Cancer

The real nudge for me to cut cheese from my diet was learning about the link between casein and cancer. I’d seen Forks over Knives and knew about The China Study, however I tucked it in the back of my brain and didn’t pay it much attention for the simple reason that I was healthy (‘the healthiest person’ many people claimed to know, in fact!), active, didn’t over-consume anything (except perhaps dark chocolate ;), and had no reason to believe I was susceptible to cancer at the ripe old age of (an otherwise healthy) 30.

But the casein-cancer link came up again after resource upon resource pointed to links between dairy and cancer, so I cut it and put myself on a raw vegan diet at the outset of my diagnosis. Because the alarming reality seemed pretty clear-cut: the consumption of casein is directly related to tumor growth. And besides that, a plant-based diet is inherently jam-packed with cancer fighting nutrients. So cutting dairy was obviously the move to make.

Dr. Colin T. Campbell, lead author of The China Study, minces no words in his conclusion: casein is a carcinogen. Based on his observations that people who consumed diets rich in animal protein contracted cancer at far greater rates than those who ate less, Campbell conducted a study in which he manipulated the amount of casein rats consumed, and measured subsequent tumor growth. The results were astonishingly clear-cut: when casein consumption went up, tumor growth increased; when casein was cut from the diet, tumors shrunk. He conducted additional studies using varying amounts of protein and different forms of both animal and plant protein, and the results seemed quite conclusive: animal protein contributed to tumor growth while plant protein did not.

Case closed, animal protein = cancer. Right? Maybe. But not so fast…

The Ongoing Debate

But. Yes – it seems there’s always a ‘but’ when it comes to nutrition studies. There are a number of people out there who have ‘debunked’ Campbell’s blanket claims that animal protein = bad = cancer growth and plant protein = good = cancer protection. Take this analysis, by a non-dairy eater and former vegan who has zero links to the food industry, therefore no agenda rather than finding truth in the numbers: it puts each conclusion under the microscope and runs actual data analysis on the numbers (this chick wasn’t messing around).

I stumbled on her post with a fair bit of skepticism, and while I’m no expert whatsoever in statistics, I took stats in grad school and have enough of a basis to see that her analysis is thorough and find her own conclusions to be thought-provoking (she literally spent months diving into the data…). What she found was that the majority of Campbell’s claims were not quite so clearly upheld by the evidence and that his own analysis contains some arguably gaping holes.

Most interesting to me – because I’m clearly biased – was the strong negative correlation between lymphoma and animal protein consumption, and the (still negative but) weaker correlation between lymphoma and plant protein consumption. None of these results are statistically significant, but if anything they indicate the direct opposite of Campbell’s conclusions.

A negative correlation means there is no discernible trend between protein consumption and cancer – if anything it’s the opposite. Positive correlations indicate a relationship (correlation), however none she found were of statistical significance, meaning absolutely zero concrete conclusions could be drawn, save for one extremely rare form of cancer that did have a statistically significant negative correlation on a plant-based diet. Overall, she found the relationship of ‘death from all cancers’ and protein consumption to be +3 for animal protein and +12 for plant protein – neither statistically significant, yet four times greater for plant protein. Ok.

Is this analysis legit?

Frankly I have no interest in analyzing the data on either end myself. I think both sides present compelling evidence-based arguments: Campbell’s casein studies are hard to ignore. The direct correlation between casein consumption and tumor growth in the rats is entirely clear. Yet humans are not rats, and the levels of casein we actually consume is proportionally speaking dramatically lower. And humans with agendas have biases.

Is his analysis that all animal products should be avoided fair? Also debatable, because there are many confounding factors when it comes to the analyses of meat consumption: people who consume meat often also tend to have diets high in processed foods, refined flour, and sugar.

My own major sticking point is his conclusion that all animal protein should be avoided: not all animal protein is casein, and not all animal protein is the same. Dairy does not equal beef does not equal fish. And it seems his investigations into animal protein were not nearly as robust as his casein experiments.

Denise has written many follow ups, including this post which recounts several of Campbell’s own previous studies that don’t quite support his own conclusions.

And then there’s this back and forth rebuttal between Campbell himself and Loren Cordain, PhD and Professor of Health Science at the University of Colorado and founder of the paleo movement. Basically, Cordain disagrees with Campbell, and based on his own research concludes that diets higher in lean (and this may be the key differentiation – lean!) animal protein promote optimal health.

So what’s really to blame?

So I’ve mentioned in more than one post that I put myself on a raw vegan diet right after my preliminary scans indicated the high likelihood of a cancerous growth. Just in case, I did all the nutrition-to-heal-cancer research and I played it safe and went 100% organic plant-based. With this diet, I consumed loads and loads of cancer-fighting nutrients and ditched the hormones and pesticides and antibiotics. And, crucially, I cleansed my system of toxins and crap that had likely been building up for longer than I realized.

Because the fact is, our food system in general is polluted and animal products in particular are highly contaminated in the modern agricultural industry, so on top of the fact that it inherently requires more work from the digestive system to break down animal products, we’re further burdening our systems with the extra crap that comes along with it. Think: chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and literal crap and bacteria from poor livestock living conditions.

When we don’t give our bodies a proper chance to detox (which it is designed to do naturally), then toxic burden just continues to increase. Our environments are simply loaded with toxins that the body has to constantly work to eliminate. Not burdening it further with difficult to digest, processed, or contaminated food simply allows it to do what it’s designed to do: eliminate waste and heal.

But, as I started treatment I consulted with a highly qualified functional medicine nutritionist. Interestingly, she strongly urged me to add animal protein back to my diet – and she wasn’t talking just eggs. Eggs yes, but she wanted me to add chicken, fish, and even red meat back into my diet. And this was after over eight years of being a vegetarian. She thought my body needed the extra protein, minerals, and fuel to heal properly.

Treatment gives your body a beating. I couldn’t argue with that. So I gave it a shot, slowly reintroducing one thing at a time. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t just to go out and buy any old chicken, beef, or fish from the store. I had to stick to all organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, wild-caught animals. Because yes you have to be super careful what you’re putting into your body, especially when you’re in healing mode.

My own conclusions

So again, we return to the idea of: where is your food coming from? Basically, I personally just don’t trust dairy in America. And I’ve realized that my body seems to be pretty happy without it. There is evidence that we as a species did not evolve to process lactose or dairy products, but also evidence that certain forms of dairy are tolerable for many populations. So it likely boils down to the individual, the ‘cleanliness’ of the source, and how much you consume. (And maybe whether or not you already have cancer…) Quality over quantity, and everything in moderation, right?

And we are back to my other previously mentioned important point: maybe dairy is a problem, but that doesn’t mean all animal protein is. This is the approach taken by the paleo crowd. And I think there’s another really important point to underscore here: animal products shouldn’t be consumed in place of plants. They should be consumed in moderation as a source of protein and fuel, but should not replace the powerful nutritional benefits we reap from plants. This, perhaps, is the real underlying issue – many diets rich in animal products simply don’t contain adequate levels of plant-based nutrition. Meat or not, we need those cancer-fighting nutrients, inflammation-fighters and antioxidant powerhouses.

The final point I’d like to make is that we are not all made equal when it comes to diet and nutrition. Some people may do best on a 100% plant-based vegan diet. Others, however, may need some animal protein to achieve optimal health and well-being.

Finally, based on mounting anecdotal evidence I’ve heard (I intend to research this further), I think there may also be a case to be made for the differing nutritional requirements of our particular health circumstances at any given point in life: perhaps at the outset of a health crisis, for example, we do best on a fully plant-based diet. But perhaps that is only meant to be a temporary state. Perhaps we do need more robust animal protein sources when we reach the point of recovery and for our ongoing health maintenance.

Perhaps, generally, we should focus less on black-and-white when it comes to animal vs plant protein, and focus instead on varying quantities: more plants, less meat, but maybe keep a little in there because your body likes it and, possibly in fact, truly does need it.

My own conclusion specifically on the dairy debate? For further research. In the meantime, I’ll continue to eat dairy-free.

Dairy-free solutions

Fortunately, being dairy-free is pretty darn easy these days once you are aware of the options available to you. Go to any food store and you can find at least a few of the almond, coconut (my current milk of choice), cashew, rice, hemp, hazelnut and soy milks available (I’d recommend avoiding this one though). I recently (finally) tried ripple, a plant-protein milk with pea protein that actually tastes quite good. If some remote pockets still don’t have this stuff? Online food markets like thrive market carry it and *bonus* cut a trip to the food store/ the need to carry heavy bags.

Dairy-free yogurt exists, and dairy-free ice cream is becoming more and more plentiful. As far as dairy-free cheese, however, I remain highly unimpressed by the ingredients and taste by any of the stuff on the store shelves.

Fortunately, I’ve found some nifty lil simple made-from-scratch solutions to the I-miss-cheese problem. First came my crucial discovery of nutritional yeast and its ability to make vegan parmesan possible, as well as vegan queso and vegan pesto to name a couple, and to add depth of flavor and a heap of nutritional benefits to a simple salad or to top my scrambled eggs.

But there’s more to the world of dairy-free cheese than nutritional yeast. I’ve now tried cashew, almond, and macadamia-based vegan cheeses, and let me tell ya, you can hardly tell they’re dairy-free. I finally whipped up some of my own vegan feta and it’s a real game-changer. And now, really, I’m missing cheese less and less.

Featured image cc Mark Metzler.



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