One of the thornier areas of the Paleo diet discussion is dairy and all its forms. But putting it that way implies that all dairy can be treated the same, which would also foreshorten the debate by inviting a simple answer.
It’s true that many consider dairy to be outside of the acceptable foods for Paleo. There are a lot of Paleo authorities who take this stance—not least being Loren Cordain himself. Let’s go over the most commonly invoked arguments against dairy as part of a Paleo diet:
- It wasn’t part of Paleolithic man’s diet. The only dairy Paleolithic people consumed was breast milk, and that only when they were babies.
- The lactose in milk isn’t well-tolerated by a lot of people.
- The casein in milk can produce an allergic or intolerant reaction.
- Its consumption can promote insulin resistance, which can hinder proper metabolic activity.
- It can elevate the risk of cancer.
There is certainly some truth to some of these claims. Non-human dairy consumption was most likely seen after the Paleolithic. Lactose intolerance does exist. Insulin resistance can be built up with considerable dairy consumption. There are indeed some studies that show correlations—not necessarily causations, take note!—between carcinogenic factors and dairy consumption. Still, the question is really far from settled if one examines the matter more closely.
Is dairy really always a super-villain?
While very strict followers of the Paleo diet might say otherwise, the general consensus among nutritionists and scientists—not to mention actual medical doctors—is that the mere fact of something not having been consumed by Paleolithic man can be taken as an incontrovertible argument against it. There are many foods today that we know to be beneficial for our health but which weren’t eaten back in Paleolithic times.
Kefir, for instance, isn’t a Paleolithic-era food by any stretch of imagination. It’s produced through fermentation (of milk) too, which isn’t something most Paleolithic men were too familiar with, by all accounts. It’s also a dairy product. But all these things aside, it happens to be packed with beneficial bacteria that serve as probiotic supplementation.
Kefir—more specifically, kefir made with organic, full-fat, grass-fed milk—is best described as a non-sweet drinking yoghurt, perhaps a little similar to buttermilk in its consistency. It’s just one example of potentially “good” dairy, and it’s easily one of the most Paleo-friendly if you’re willing to open your mind a little to the dairy-in-Paleo proposition. For one thing, its production through fermentation renders it less likely to set off lactose intolerant responses than most dairy products. Fermenting milk leads to the lactose in it being consumed by beneficial bacteria. In other words, there are barely any sugars left in it to trigger lactose intolerance—or insulin responses, for that matter.
It’s actually possible to make highly Paleo-friendly kefir, as this indicates. Kefir that’s been fermented longer, for example, will not only have fewer sugars left in it but will also have more good bacteria for your gut. Furthermore, selecting the right milk to ferment can actually reduce the risk of casein intolerance… and possibly even cancer.
Which type of dairy were those studies talking about?
Earlier we suggested that it would be unfair to treat all dairy equally. It’s because there really are different kinds of dairy: you can get cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, organic, inorganic, grass-fed, feed-raised, and so on.
This should tell you that you need to think twice before immediately writing off all dairy based on just a few studies—and ones that still need to be supplemented and confirmed heavily by further research, by the way, before any hard and fast conclusions can be drawn from them. What dairy did they use in the tests? What other factors might have affected results? What was the margin of error? What justification is there for pronouncing the observations drawn from the study as being universally applicable to all dairy types?
This isn’t to say that whatever conclusions drawn from the studies cited by those against dairy are invalid. But this isn’t to say they’re universally valid either.
Generally, the best dairy comes from organically raised animals that are grass-fed and pasture-raised. Even hardcore thought leaders in Paleo eating—Robb Wolf, for example—cite it as an example of dairy packed with nutrients. Chemical analyses of this type of cow’s milk, for instance, show that it not only boasts Omega-3 fatty acids and saturated fats that are good for your heart but also contains conjugated linoleic acid. Never heard of it? It’s an anti-carcinogen.
Some types of cow’s milk have also been found to contain a different type of casein from the more common A1 variety. Preliminary studies are indicating that this other casein—the less common type—may be less likely to trigger symptoms of intolerance in human drinkers.
So is it good or bad?
The real question, if we get right down to it, is whether a particular type of dairy is good or bad for you.
If you ask any doctor about it, most foods (and diets) have to be taken on a let’s-see-what-works provisional basis. Inflexibility isn’t a good strategy for survival, after all. This means that even if you’re following a particular diet, others’ prescriptions for it aren’t always the ultimate word on whether you have to eat or ditch a particular food. Yes, general rules are useful, as are statistics. But it’s the particulars that always count for more.
By all accounts, kefir made with grass-fed, organic and pasture-raised milk stands to benefit you more than it stands to harm you. Still, don’t take my word as the final one on it. Try some kefir yourself using the dairy specified above and monitor your health to see if it agrees with you. Most people are surprised by how well it works for them when they make the conscious choice to consume only healthy, high-quality dairy even when doing Paleo, so you may well find yourself astonished by how good something previously thought bad can make you feel.