Within the Paleo / Keto / Carnivore circles, there’s a bit of controversy about dairy. It is an animal product (carnivore), but not a paleolithic (pre-domesticated cattle) product. Yet, many forms of dairy are very popular on ketogenic diets due to their (sometimes) low carb and high fat / protein nature.
Rather than espouse a yay or nay for dairy, let’s talk about some of the whys and why nots and how they differ with different forms of dairy. Not all dairy is created equal!
An Introduction to Dairy:
Before I every dug into medical journals or even podcasts, I was a fan of the articles on Paleo Leap for giving lots of concise yet detailed information. So, when it comes to dairy “the primary concerns are lactose (sugar) and casein (protein) that many people are sensitive to” (e.g. pro-inflammatory allergens).
We also need to consider that all pasteurized milk is “cooked” and has had the fat removed and then added back in. This is in opposition to “raw” milk. Milk is also, almost literally, acidic mucus, so it’s not too far of a claim to expect an increase in both those byproducts in our bodies when we consume dairy.
Lastly, humans are one of the only mammals that will drink milk from another species (e.g. non-humans), and the only mammals that drink milk outside of infancy (more on this later).
On The Ben Greenfield Podcast, Paul Saladino described dairy as “addictive because it is a combination of sugar and fat” and that it “is great for infants, and it’s why we crave ice cream”, however, “it’s rewarding but not satisfying” (r). Admittedly, I love ice cream, though have been able to abstain since going carnivore.
Similar to infants (cows, humans, or other mammals) who need to grow as big as fast as they can, Tim Ferris references a GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) diet used by old school body builders to put on mass (r) – though this is certainly a specific use scenario.
Dairy and Keto:
Ken Berry is one of my favorite keto / carnivore doctors (and a native southerner!). Though he tends more towards keto than carnivore, he is certainly open to new information and revising previous content – e.g. becoming more carnivore(ish) over time.
At any rate, he has a video specifically about dairy and identifies humans typically do better with human milk. It’s also important to note that there’s a cut off for when humans are able to adequately digest the sugar in milk; typically 2 - 6 years old. That is, when we’re small and need to grow the most.
After that, all bets are off. Sometimes we suffer from “obtuse” inflammation from dairy; think eczema, migraines, IBS, and arthritis rather than nausea and diarrhea.
Ken also lays out an important spectrum of dairy products, typically the high sugar / low fat products are the worst (most inflammatory, least well tolerated), then the low sugar products, and finally the high fat / low sugar / low protein products.
For reference (from worst to best): skim milk (0% fat) > whole milk (4% fat) > half and half (20% fat) > heavy cream (36% fat) > soft cheese (microbe enacted, less inflammatory proteins) > hard cheese (40-60% fat) > butter (still has trace proteins) > ghee (99% fat, no sugar, no protein).
Dairy and Carnivore:
Kevin Stock (a carnivore dentist) had similar things to say (r). Lactase (which is needed to digest lactose) production stops between the ages of 2 and 5, and intolerance is actually normal thereafter.
The casein (protein) from cow’s milk is different than that found in human milk and is much more allergenic than whey (the other protein in milk). While whey is less allergenic than casein, it produces a greater insulin response. Whey also signals growth hormones, which include IGF-1 – obviously important if you’re trying to grow.
The peptides in milk also have opiod-like properties, back to the addictive nature of dairy. When I was in graduate school, in a substance abuse class, the professor told a story about a student who abstained from cheese (as part of a class experiment) and experienced the same withdraw symptoms as a heroin addict. Surprised?
Butter can be a good source of cholesterol and saturated fat, as well as Vitamin K2, which stops calcium from settling in the arteries.
Fermentation also tends to improve the digestion of dairy (e.g. milk versus cheese – see scale above). Cows have 7 stomachs to ferment things, we have a tiny colon at the end of our digestive tract, that’s used after the nutrients have been absorbed by the intestines. Again, the type of dairy matters, A1 (domesticated cows) tends to be more inflammatory than A2 (buffalo, sheep, goats), and there’s a similar comparison between raw and pasteurized dairy.
My Experience with Dairy:
Milk is a big no-no. There’s just too many carbs for my liking and not nearly enough fat, or protein for that matter. I’ve used whey proteins here and there (grass fed of course) and they are great for convenience, but more than two scoops at once gunks up my guts.
Butter and ghee are usually safe for me, as are dry, organic cheeses. The caution I have against butter is when it’s used as a liquid (e.g. in coffee). I still do this occasionally, but overall have found it not very satisfying and throws off my satiety signals. I don’t eat the cheese regularly, but when I need a big calorie drop in a hurry (like on a road trip or forgot to meal prep) then I don’t have any problems. Again though, cheese is fermented and the proteins are different than that of regular milk.