I am constantly on the fence about dairy. Try as I might to focus my diet on what is included rather than excluded, dairy is one food item (along with nuts) that I often have to ask myself: am I eating this now or staying away from it?
To begin with, what dairy and nuts have in common in this case is that they’re both major domino foods. How familiar does this sound: after buying the economically-sized tub of Greek yogurt with intentions of eating only reasonable, well-measured portions, half of it is gone by the next morning. Don’t get me started on this phenomena with nuts (my newest, strictest rule: no more buying in bulk). And cheese? Forget it. I’m pretty sure cheese is supposed to be more of a garnish than an entrée, but it is pretty stinking easy to put back a thousand or so calories of cheese, especially when eating it in front of the TV.
However, in pursuit of more energy, increased athletic performance, and stable blood sugar, is dairy actually a good addition to the diet? I know lots of CrossFitters who swear by the Icelandic yogurt Siggi’s (or the new one that is exclusively at Whole Foods, Smari). Incidentally, the CrossFit-favored Paleo diet does not include diary. Cheese, milk, butter, and yogurt are among the agricultural products that, along with grains and legumes, don’t fit the Primal lifestyle. But what makes the Icelandic style special (and, Greek, German, Australian…there are more to be found) is that it is strained so many times that it bulks up the protein while straining off the lactose, minimizing the sugar and carbohydrate content. While a typical serving of regular yogurt only takes about one cup of milk, a serving of Greek takes something like two or three , while Icelandic can take up to five. So, when following a low carbohydrate diet, Paleo or otherwise, this is a high-five. These types of yogurt also have the whole homesteading thing going for them – it’s a traditional food that has sustained a culture for generations. Plus, the two Icelandic brands that you can find on your store’s shelves are rather unadulterated as these things go: very few ingredients, no added sugars or preservatives. Bingo. In the end, this quality trumps an extra carbohydrate here or there for me (though I still aim low.) Besides, does anyone else remember the Chobani-GMO-mold mess that got them dropped from Whole Foods? I do.
So, yogurt aside, what about cheese?
The bacteria in cheese eats up the lactose as it ages, so any cheese aged longer than three months, generally speaking, has lost most or all of its lactose, leaving the cheese to be a high fat, high protein, low-or-no-carb snack. But again, the domino effect strikes: the last time I invited cheese into my diet I found myself eating it at almost every snack and meal, and most of my feel-good markers (energy, performance, blood sugar) were thrown way off as a result. Don’t forget that cheese (again, along with nuts) is one of the most allergenic foods. Even if you don’t have a bona-fide intolerance, just because your GI can tolerate 1 oz of something doesn’t mean it can tolerate 10 oz of it. I see alcohol the same way: one drink? Fine! 10 drinks? No bueno!
As for butter: I won’t give up butter. High quality, grass fed, real pretty yellow butter. The picture above illustrates before your very eyes the difference between conventional butter (left) and grass fed butter (right). Even organic butter can be that sad white color, if the cows are fed organic grains! When it comes to butter, yellow means go. That being said, I also don’t use that much of it. Sometimes – rarely – I make myself a nice bulletproof coffee in the NutriBullet with 1 tbsp coconut oil and 1 tbsp butter for a smoother, easier, longer lasting caffeine fix instead of a sharp spike. But I also use butter to cook with and have just started using ghee. Another traditional food (this could be the final lesson learned here today: if you’re going to eat dairy, make sure it’s produces from a centuries-old traditional method) ghee is frequently used in Indian and southeast Asian cooking and is clarified butter from which the lactose and casein have been cooked away. The smoke point is also much higher than vegetable oils, which is a very good thing when trying to avoid free radicals and AGEs in your cooking.
So, like the title says, eat your dairy responsibly. This PSA could actually apply to all food in general, but when you’re on the fence about a particular food and are experimenting with adding it in or taking it out, your best chance at getting it to work for you and your goals is to get the highest quality available, and even better if it’s been made from traditional methods. And for the love of cows (or goats, or sheep), eat that dairy mindfully!