The Problem(s) with Dairy

Have you ever paused to consider the fact that not only are we, humans, the only species to consume milk into adulthood, but that we’re the only species to ingest the milk of another species? Most people haven’t, and indeed I myself never contemplated the absurdity of this fact until after I became vegan.

The dairy industry doesn’t want you to think about how completely unnatural it is for humans to drink the milk of cows and ingest dairy products. Instead, they want you to believe that you need dairy products, and that life without dairy would be dull and devoid of palate pleasure.

But when you actually think about it – the fact that we put the breast milk meant for the young of another species into almost everything we eat – you have to admit it’s pretty damned strange.

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I’m going to throw out a few scenarios that will sound both perverse and crude. But this is merely to illustrate the fact that consuming dairy products is completely un-natural.

SCENARIO #1

If you were in the wild and encountered a cow, would you up to her start sucking her teats?

No. Because:

  1. You wouldn’t want to. Your instinct would probably simply be to admire the cow or just observe the fact that she was there. The idea would never even cross your mind.
  2. If you did want to drink her milk, which again, you probably wouldn’t, you’d encounter various problems. First of all, she might not be lactating, which by the way, is the result of recently haven given birth. Assuming she was lactating, you’d have to first get her calf out of the way. Then, she probably wouldn’t let you. Why? Because you’d be violating both she and her calf.

 

Dairy

SCENARIO #2

As an adult, would you go up to your own mother and try to suck on her nipple? Would you allow your grown child to do that to you?

Hell to the no. Because:

  1. The only time we consume the milk of our own species is when we’re growing babies. This milk is specially formulated for us to enable us to undergo the greatest and fastest growth spurt of our lives.
  2. When we’ve grown and developed enough to eat actual food, that’s it. We’re done. Beyond 3 years old or so, for a child to be consuming his or her mother’s breast milk is considered taboo.

SCENARIO #3

Imagine you’re on a safari in Africa. You see a chimpanzee go up to a zebra and start sucking on her teats. What would be your reaction?

You’d find it bizarre, very bizarre. You might laugh at the illogical-ness of it, or you might feel pity for the chimpanzee because he or she is clearly deranged. You’d probably be wondering why the zebra hadn’t gotten away from the chimpanzee, and think to yourself “how could she possibly be cool with this?”

Regardless, as with the other scenarios I presented, this one would never, ever happen. Because it goes against the rules governing nature. Animals only consume the milk of their own species, and when they do it’s their own mother’s breast milk. What’s more, it’s only for a short while until they’ve grown enough and can eat.

The perversity of the fact that our society ingests vast amounts of cow’s milk has implications both for our health and for the welfare of the animals that are used towards this end.

COMMON MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT DAIRY

#1 – Consuming dairy is natural and healthy

There is nothing natural about consuming the milk intended for the young of another species, least of all an animal that is much larger than us.

Let’s consider the fact that the average healthy human weighs 110-200 pounds. Full grown cows and bulls, on the other hand, weigh around 1,600 pounds and 2,400 pounds, respectively. The hormones and proteins in cow’s milk enables a calf to gain 70 pounds per month and triple their weight in 10 weeks. Cows and bulls reach puberty usually after about 1 year, thanks to this impressive formula.

Results

The composition of cow’s milk

Cow’s milk contains components that are completely unsuitable for grown humans to be digesting.

The first of these is the protein casein, which gives milk a higher molecular weight (233K) than human breast milk (14K). Calves have a digestive enzyme called rennin which helps them to break down the casein. Humans do not have this enzyme. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, nutrition expert and the author of The China Study, a book synthesizing data from the largest nutrition study ever conducted, has stated that he believes casein is the single greatest carcinogen to which humans are exposed.

The second is insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This is a hormone, that unlike casein, is present in human breast milk. IGF-1 triggers rapid cell division, which is important when we’re small growing babies. But as adults do we need rapid cell division? Unless we want cancer, the answer should be no.

The human body’s reaction to the elements of cow’s milk is to recognize them as foreign bodies and to form an immune response, otherwise known as inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases risk for inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and IBS.

Additionally, milk is high in estrogen, which is not safe to consume in high quantities. Our society’s overconsumption of milk is likely responsible in part for the fact that girls are reaching puberty earlier.

The addictive properties of milk

Casomorphins, opiates found in casein, attach themselves to opioid receptors in our brains. Opioid receptors are associated with pain, pleasure, reward, and addiction.

The reason that milk contains opiates is that they enable a baby or calf – whichever the case may be – to associate positive feelings with breast-feeding.

But it’s one thing physiologically addicted to your mother’s breast milk as a baby; it’s quite another to be addicted to the milk of another species as an adult.

Other health problems with milk

Dairy contains more protein than any other animal product. Contrary to the idea that protein deficiency is a problem in the U.S., Americans consume twice the amount of protein they need, leading to weight gain, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes, among other issues.

Dairy is also rich in saturated fat and cholesterol, contributing to the buildup of plaque along the arteries. This buildup eventually can lead to heart disease – the #1 killer amidst Americans.

Finally, dairy has no fiber whatsoever. Fiber is important for cleaning the walls of our 22-inch long small intestine.

Unlike plant foods, which help to scrub the walls of our small intestine, dairy coats the surface of our small intestine with a fatty film, preventing villi – fingerlike hairs along our intestine that help to absorb nutrients and antioxidants – from doing their job.

rBGH, pathogens, and antibiotics

Milk produced at factory farms may contain recombinant growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered artificial hormone designed to get the cows to produce more milk. rBGH has been linked to higher levels of IGF-1, which itself increases risk for cancer.

Cow’s milk can carry a heavy load of pathogens due partly to mastitis, the inflammation of cows’ udders resulting from factory farm practices. As a result the average amount of somatic blood cells (otherwise known as white blood cells or pus) comes in at approximately 1,000,000 cells per spoonful.

To counter this, antibiotics are used to reduce risk of illness upon ingestion. The assimilation of antibiotics through our food makes us more antibiotic resistant and therefore less equipped to fight illness should the need arise.

#2 – Cows need to be milked

Some may say that this could not possibly be a common misperception, but believe me, it is. I have had many a conversation with people curious about my vegan diet who really had thought that this was the case.

The truth is that cows, like humans, only produce milk just after giving birth.

Knowing this all too well, the dairy industry keep their cows in a constant cycle of insemination, pregnancy, and lactation, until they’re considered “spent” at about 4 years of age.

Dairy

Here’s a breakdown of exactly how this cycle is implemented:

  1. Bulls are sexually manipulated, a.k.a. abused to produce semen which is put into a vial
  2. Cows are situated along a “rape rack” (industry term). A man comes along and inserts a “sperm gun” elbow-deep into her vagina
  3. Several months later, the cow gives birth. Her calf is taken from her after about 1 day. Pain, anguish, and despair ensue
  4. She may be injected with rBGH, a hormone that will increase her milk production. This will also make her udder much larger and heavier
  5. She is hooked up to machines 2 or 3 times a day. The abrasiveness of the machines, coupled with the effects of rBGH, often leads to a painful condition called mastitis – inflammation of the mammary glands

And then the cycle starts again.

#3 – Dairy products are better than meat, because animals don’t have to be killed for it

The truth is that dairy products may in fact be ethically worse than meat, because cows bred in the dairy business are abused over longer periods of time, and because both they and their calves are ultimately slaughtered.

Let’s start with the calves. When a calf is taken from her mother – usually after about 1 day, so he or she doesn’t take too much of her milk, the calf’s fate is to be either:

  1. Raised to be another dairy cow
  2. Confined and made into veal, killed at about 4 months old
  3. Sold to the meat industry and raised for beef.
  4. Simply killed. This is a common occurrence due to decreased demand for beef and veal.

Next let’s consider the cow’s fate. She is deemed as “tapped out” at age 4 (in natural circumstances, cows live to about 20 years). But she may impregnated once again, just so that the hide of her unborn calf can be made into supple leather. She’s then brought to the slaughterhouse, where she’s ground into meat to be made into a hamburger. And by the way, there’s a good chance she won’t be properly anesthetized prior to slaughter due to the inefficiency of stunning practices.

Misery Comes in All Flavors

It’s also worth mentioning that most of these dairy cows are kept in extreme confinement most of their lives. They are forced to be in isolation, unable to socialize with one another. Their physical mobility is limited, they have no access whatsoever to the outdoors so as to breathe the fresh air and feel grass beneath their feet. Often, their first glimpse of sunshine and natural daylight is during the trip to the slaughterhouse.

Sound too ludicrous to be true? It should be, but this is the reality for these abused animals. And the female cows have the worst of it, so anyone who considers themselves to be a feminist, and yet consumes dairy needs to reflect upon the irony of this.

#4 – We need dairy products for calcium and strong bones

As with most others raised in the U.S., the idea that I needed to drink 3 glasses of milk per day to support my growing bones was drilled into me throughout my childhood. I got it not only from my parents and school, but from the dairy industry’s advertising. We’re talking about the late 90s and early millenium, the heyday of those milk mustache ads.

Venus and Serena Williams are now vegan

Above: Venus and Serena Williams once endorsed milk, but are now vegan

Back then, I actually didn’t like milk at all – it just seemed a little gross to me and my body was intuitively repelled by it. Still, I drank milk because I was told to and when I didn’t drink those 3 glasses of milk per day I felt guilty.

Little did I know back then that this whole “3 glasses of milk per day” thing was a marketing scam designed by the dairy industry and the USDA, not by people who actually knew what they were talking about and cared about the health of Americans.

It is true that milk contains calcium. What’s not true is that:

Milk is the only form of calcium

Cows, which are herbivorous by the way, get their calcium from the plant foods they eat. So can we. Plant foods that are high in calcium include broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, legumes (beans), and whole grains.

The calcium contained in milk neutralizes the amount of calcium taken from our bones when we consume milk

That’s right, milk takes more calcium from our bones than it provides. The reason for this is that dairy, being rich in animal protein, creates acid in our bodies. Our bodies need to be at a very precise, slightly alkaline pH level in order for all of our organs and systems to function properly. If we consume too much dairy, we run the risk of making our bodies acidic. In an effort to alkalize itself, the body will undergo metabolic acidosis – where calcium and phosphate (which are bonded together) are taken from our bones. This process happens in the kidneys and the excess protein, along with the calcium that was pulled, is excreted through our urine.

The countries with the highest dairy intake are not the countries with the lowest rates of osteoporosis. In fact, it is the countries with the highest dairy intake – the United States, the UK, Sweden, and Finland – that have the highest incidence of osteoporosis.

Rural areas in Africa and Asia with the lowest dairy intake have a significantly lower risk for osteoporosis and fractures.

How did all this information fall through the cracks?

There are countless reasons as to why people have remained ignorant about both the health perils of consuming dairy, and the grave injustices perpetrated against cows used in dairy production. However, they generally fall under the categories of advertising, political lobbying, modern medicine, and culture.

Advertising

The notion that meat is the only form of protein, and that cow’s milk is the only form of calcium goes back to the beginning of the second half of the 19th century and the beginning 20th century.

Prior to the industrial revolution, people’s diets had mainly consisted of plant foods – with an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains.

Meat and dairy-rich diets were considered luxuries and only rich people had regular access to them.

Following the industrial revolution, however, the agricultural industry saw an opportunity to make a killing – literally and figuratively – by making the animal-rich diet accessible to everyone. The technological advances resulting from the industrial revolution had enabled them to dramatically scale up the production of animal products. This led to the beginning of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and what we know today as factory farming.

One of animal agribusiness’ main selling points were the few nutrients that had been found in meat and dairy. In meat, they knew, there was protein. In dairy, there was calcium. They leveraged these two nutrients as much as possible in their advertising campaigns, upon which they lavished considerable amounts of money.

As a result of this messaging, impressionable Americans concluded that animal products were the only form of these nutrients.

Because this propaganda goes back so far and encompasses several generations, the idea that meat is the only form of protein and dairy is the only form of calcium is very entrenched in our society. Our great-grandparents and grandparents grew up believing this, as did our parents. And this is part of why our society’s indoctrination regarding animal products is so strong.

Political lobbying

The meat and dairy industry’s have a long-established foothold in Washington, where they have been able to influence the government’s dietary recommendations.

The USDA, which is really an agency set up promote the agricultural industry, has had control of the US dietary guidelines since 1980.

This fundamental conflation of private corporate interests with the health of Americans has gone more or less unchecked since then.

When I was growing up in the 90s and early millenium, I was taught the food pyramid in school. Naively, I believed that this pyramid had been constructed with the pure intention to help protect the well-being and health of Americans. Had I known that vested interests were at stake in this, and that the food pyramid would look much different had agribusiness not had a say in it, I know for sure I would not have eaten nearly as much meat and dairy as I did. And I probably would not have struggled with my weight as much when I reached early adulthood, and had so many of the accompanying self-esteem issues.

Now, young kids are taught “MyPlate” in school – which is essentially not much different than the food pyramid in that it still promotes animal products. Knowing what I now know, it is my strong belief that nutrition education in schools needs a complete overhaul. Nutrition is not a light, frivolous subject to be taught sporadically throughout one’s school years. It needs to be treated just as seriously, if not more seriously, than Math, Science, English, and History. It should be an entire subject studied throughout one’s school years. Children need to understand the intricacies of nutrition, and they should be taught this by nutritionists whose education was not influenced by meat and dairy industry propaganda.

As of right now, however, this is not happening, And until this happens, misinformation will continue to run rampant.

Modern medicine

Contemporary or allopathic medicine concerns itself not with a preventative approach to health, but rather a reactive approach. In this model, the symptoms of health issues are treated instead of the root problem. And the root problem is almost always caused by diet.

Obese people undergo gastric bypass surgery when all they needed to do was change their diet; people with high blood pressure go on statin drugs when all they needed was to change their diet; people with heart disease go on cholesterol-lowering drugs when all they needed was to change their diet; people undergo chemo and radiation for cancer when they might not have gotten cancer in the first place if they had they eaten a different diet. Depression and anxiety can also be influenced by diet, but there is no field in medicine that focuses on this connection, so the prescription is always drugs.

The answer to optimal health lies, mainly, in our diet. It is true that genes may affect our potential of getting certain diseases. However, scientists are now starting to figure out that, for the most part, whether or not these genes express themselves ultimately comes down to lifestyle choices. This means we have more individual agency than modern medicine would have us think.

But nutrition is not taught in medical schools so most doctors know next to nothing about how to heal through dietary changes.

Instead they’re taught, for x problem, do x procedure or prescribe x medication.

And as a result, Americans never learn that if they simply eliminated dairy from their diet, they probably wouldn’t have the health issue in the first place.

Culture

Some of our fondest memories in life are of moments gathering around the dinner table, surrounded by our loved ones. And particular foods can trigger nostalgic memories of growing up.

On Saturday mornings when I was a young girl, my dad used to take my brother to play soccer, hockey, or baseball. My mom would go for a long run around the reservoir, and on her way back home she’d pick up my favorite breakfast / lunch food:

A toasted poppyseed bagel with melted muenster cheese (washed down with a coke, of course). It was sooo good. I was usually starving at that point in the day, so granted, probably anything would taste good.

But it also evoked positive emotions that I associated with my mom. I wouldn’t have discovered this delicious meal if it hadn’t been for my mom. And the fact that she had picked it up for me conjured feelings of belonging and being cared for.

The bagel with muenster cheese example is just one of thousands of pleasant memories I have of consuming animal foods with family and, friends, or members of various communities I belonged to growing up. So it’s not surprising that disengaging myself from the practice of eating these products was really difficult.

Because of my attachment to food, I was resistant to learning about the ethical issues involved in food production, and thus remained willfully ignorant as to what was going on for several years.

This resistance was strong because it was rooted in assumptions about veganism the most significant of which were:

#1 – I would basically be surrendering any enjoyment I might ever get out of eating food

#2 – Going vegan would create problems in terms of how I interacted with other people

Suffice it to say that I was not only wrong but beyond wrong. First of all, I didn’t even know what it was to really enjoy food until after I became vegan. I discovered all sorts of new vegetables and grains I didn’t know existed, and I was able to savor my food so much more knowing that it was healthy for me and that no animals had been harmed.

The social aspect turned out to be not an issue at all. My friends were intrigued by my new diet and eager to try new vegan restaurants with me, while my parents spontaneously developed a passion for cooking vegan meals. My extended family members took pride in making special vegan dishes for me at our holiday gatherings. And the guys I dated afterwards were for the most part very supportive.

However, I had no idea how easy making the shift would be. And so I know, first hand, why the notion of going vegan seems so extreme to most people. Note: I realize not everyone has such a positive experience coming out of the vegan closet, but for myself and most of the vegans I know, the transition was much easier than we had predicted.

Conclusion

It was Voltaire who said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Absurdities and atrocities. That, to me, is our society’s production and consumption of dairy products, in a nutshell.

Now you have the option to wake up from the cultural spell that was cast upon us – the spell that told us we needed milk, that it was good for us, and that consuming it was normal and natural. And whether or not you choose to wake up is on you, my friend.

Recommended Resources

Short videos

Milk in Reverse – 1-minute video by Peta

Death by Dairy – Fascinating talk by Dr.  John MacDougal

Documentaries to watch

Eating

Forks Over knives

Food Choices

This post was informed in part by “The Domination of the Feminine” chapter of The World Peace Diet.

My awareness of dairy and meat industry propaganda was shaped by For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the U.S., as well as the documentaries Forks Over Knives and Eating.

Learn about the dairy-free products I recommend in my post Veganize Your Fridge.

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