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To Dairy, Or Not to Dairy?

That is the question among the many CrossFitters who are card-carrying members of the Paleo nutrition community. But there are many reasons why dairy can be the not-quite-so-Paleo power food.


Round about the end of the last ice age, herds of wild aurochs, ancestor of the cow, roamed the newly thawed grasslands of the Eurasian steppe. Meanwhile, our ancestors stalked them with spears and made them into deliciously grilled steaks — but did not milk them. And that is the reason dairy is verboten among followers of the Paleo diet.

OK, that’s one of the reasons. Others include concerns that consumption of dairy products is linked to a range of health issues, particularly weight gain and excessive uncontrolled systemic inflammation. But, as any serious athlete understands, it’s vital to fuel an active body with the optimal nutrition necessary for peak performance and recovery. And when you take a look at the nutritional virtues of certain dairy products and dig deep into the science, it’s understandable why more relaxed Paleo practitioners say that dairy, when consumed in reasonable amounts (and assuming your system tolerates it) can help bolster fitness gains without greatly upsetting your Paleo-ness.

Protein Power

By nature, a CrossFit workout results in a notable amount of muscular damage. Generally, this is a desirable outcome because it promotes a stronger, more able body. The benefits will only occur, however, if you feed your muscles a healthy dose of protein to activate muscular repair and growth. For that reason, the protein content of dairy is a valid reason to consider including it in your training diet.

When it comes to whole foods that are sources of complete protein, meaning they contain the full set of essential amino acids required by the body, there are few that outperform dairy. In fact, dairy’s Biological Value, a scale of measurement used to determine what percentage of protein in a food is absorbed and used by the body, is higher than that of fish, poultry or beef.

One reason for this advantage is that milk contains two very different proteins, whey and casein. Whey is commonly referred to as a fast protein because it’s quickly broken down into amino acids and absorbed into the bloodstream, making it all the more desirable to help muscles recover after their suffer-fest. Going one step further, whey protein is particularly high in branched-chain amino acids, which have been shown to be the most capable at bolstering muscular repair and strength in response to exercise. Research has also uncovered a few other perks that come with consuming whey, namely that it can rev up thermogenesis (aka fat burning), help quell hunger and stimulate immune health.

On the flip side, casein protein is digested slowly, providing the body with a steady supply of smaller amounts of amino acids over a longer period. Together, whey and casein offer a powerful one-two punch in helping improve athleticism — a fact that has been borne out in research. Case in point: A 2012 European Journal of Applied Physiology study found that participants who downed milk following muscle-damaging exercise experienced less of a reduction in muscular performance and fewer markers of muscle damage.

Bug Love

Our intestinal tracts are home to not millions, not billions, but trillions of bacteria. While that may seem counterintuitive to good health, many of these critters are considered beneficial to human well-being. As long as we maintain this populace of good guys, they’ll do whatever necessary to keep harmful bacteria in check.

For this reason, research is starting to pile up that we shouldn’t be so sour on dairy that has been left to ferment. During fermentation — a process that was traditionally used as a method of preservation well before refrigerators became the norm — milk becomes populated by a colony of good-for-you bugs collectively referred to as “probiotics.” Once consumed, these probiotics improve the makeup of your gut flora.

Probiotics, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have become the darlings of nutrition research because data indicates they significantly bolster digestive and immune health, both of which can be compromised during periods of intense training. A study published in Nutrition Journal found that higher intakes of these super-bugs can even reduce upper-respiratory-tract symptoms in athletes. Probiotics like those found in fermented dairy products (yogurt, cottage cheese) are also thought to improve overall nutrient absorption, which could translate into better performance adaptations from those never-say-die workouts.

Nutrient Firepower

Dairy, in all its guises, delivers a range of nutrients needed to maintain a hard-charging body. For starters, it’s brimming with calcium. Sure, we’ve been told umpteen times about calcium’s role in making bones stronger, but it’s also vital for proper muscular contraction, and several studies, including a recent Israeli study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also link higher intake of calcium from dairy to improved fat loss.

Furthermore, dairy is one of the few reliable dietary sources of vitamin D in the Western diet. Vitamin D is a wonderworking vitamin that in recent years has been shown to help in the battle against a number of maladies, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Riboflavin, necessary for releasing energy from the carbs you eat; phosphorus for bone building; vitamin B-12 for keeping the nervous system working smoothly; and potassium for proper heart functioning — all these are more proof that dairy can be considered one of the more nutrient-dense options in the supermarket.

Fabulous Fat

Not long ago, finding a nutritionist who didn’t trumpet the importance of consuming nothing but low-fat dairy was as likely as Rich Froning missing a workout. Blissfully, we are now slowly moving past the low-fat hysteria and know that there is no reason to choke down watery skim milk. That’s because the best dairy choices (see “Greener Pastures” below) naturally contain a number of fats that promote human health. These include artery-friendly omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid gaining attention for its potential for cancer prevention, improving bone strength and encouraging fat metabolism. Intakes of CLA have been greatly reduced in America in recent years with the push of low-fat dairy and the switch to industrial livestock production. Further, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health discovered that higher intakes of trans-palmitoleic acid — a naturally occurring trans fat (read: not the hydrogenated trans fat pumped into processed foods) found in dairy — can slash the risk for developing diabetes.

Research, including a recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis that examined 21 studies involving nearly 350,000 subjects, is now even questioning the long-held belief that dietary intakes of saturated fat such as those in full-fat dairy is linked to cardiovascular disease. And are you ready for this? Australian scientists reported in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that over a 16-year period, adults who ate the most full-fat dairy actually had a whopping 69 percent lower risk for heart disease than those who ate the least. It seems that too many processed carbohydrates and man-made trans fats are much more involved in hampering heart health.

Lastly, remember that vitamins A and D, both present in milk and some other dairy products, are fat-soluble nutrients, which means they must be consumed with fat in order to be used by the body. When you strip away the fat, you greatly hinder their absorption.

Greener Pastures

Paleo eaters who aren’t staunchly anti-dairy often tout raw (unpasteurized) dairy as the best possible option for those who generally want to eat things that our pelt-wearing ancestors would have chowed down on. But the anti-raw laws that are the norm in most states and are intended to save the food supply from potentially dangerous pathogens mean that scoring raw milk can require a Herculean effort. What’s easy to come by these days is organic dairy hailing from pasture-raised cattle.

It’s a better fix than you might think. A research team from Washington State University found that organic milk contained on average 62 percent more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and 25 percent fewer pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than conventional milk. Cows producing milk for organically certified dairies take in more of their energy from pasture than cattle squirting out milk for non-organic dairies; they’re stuffed on corn and soy, a feeding pattern that results in an uptick in omega-6 numbers. What’s more, the animals on organic farms are not pumped full of antibiotics and sketchy hormones like recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.