Does ditching dairy do a body good? Experts weigh in

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When Susan Macfarlane dropped all animal and animal products from her diet she unexpectedly dropped 12 pounds from her already fit frame.

“I like to joke that it was 12 pounds in cheese,” said the Ottawa-based registered dietitian in a phone interview with Yahoo Canada.

Got milk-funded research?

Anecdotal tales of people ditching dairy in a bid to ditch their muffin top have spread IRL and on the Internet lately. Khloé Kardashian claims she lost 11 pounds just by cutting out all dairy products. And a long line of lithe celebrities, from Victoria Beckham to Gwyneth Paltrow to Megan Fox, have whipped up the idea that ditching dairy and dairy products usually made from cow’s milk, such as yogurt, ice cream and cheese, can help Average Joes and Janes get a lithe body like theirs. Looking beyond the anecdotes to the science is likely to leave you scratching your head. As the book Got Milked? The Great Dairy Deception And Why You’ll Thrive Without Milk notes much of the current scientific evidence is contradictory, at best: “[M]ilk builds strong bones, milk weakens bones; milk gives you a clear complexion, milk triggers acne and eczema; milk helps you lose weight, milk makes you gain weight; milk fights cancer, milk causes cancer.”

Adding fuel to the conspiracy fire is the fact that many studies touting the benefits of dairy have been funded by the dairy industry — which raises questions about conflicts of interest, adds Macfarlane. More solid, independent scientific research needs to be done, she notes.

If you eat half a wheel of double-churned brie with your dinner every night, then follow it up with half a pint of double-churned, double chocolate, ice cream for dessert you are likely to lose weight if you simply cut out dairy. But, it’s not necessarily cutting out dairy that helped you shed the pounds, but cutting down on the amount of total calories you’re consuming per day, explains Macfarlane.

While cutting out cheese did help the plant-based nutrition expert lose weight, she cautions against thinking ditching dairy will magically give you Kardashian’s booty.

“You can’t just look at one food or one food group” if you’re looking to shape up, she advises. Rather, look at the amount and quality of the food you’re consuming, paired with the amount of moderate to vigorous exercise you’re doing regularly.

Dairy free is the new gluten free

All the conflicting scientific evidence hasn’t stopped the idea that milk is bad for your health from fermenting like a tub of yogurt in the public consciousness.

“If you look at Instagram you’d think the whole world has cut out dairy and gone vegan,” quipped Andy De Santis, a registered dietitian, in an interview.

Just as the gluten-free fad before it, companies have milked this latest food trend for all its worth. And it’s evidently worth a lot. Sales of almond milk in the U.S. surged 250 per cent between 2011-2015, according to market-research firm Nielsen. Meanwhile, the firm found that total milk market shrunk by five per cent during the same time period. Nut milk is no longer seen as the fringe beverage of your nutty aunt with five cats. Starbucks Canada is the latest mainstream companies to add almond beverage to many of its stores, which already offered soy beverage and coconut-milk beverage as an alternative to cow’s milk in your morning latte.

The very young and the very old

Dr. Jonathon Maguire noticed an uptick in the number of parents who have soured on cow’s milk due to the “perceived health benefits that may or may not be there” of switching to milk alternatives. So the pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto decided to do some research. He has co-authored several published studies, with one 2014 study finding that children who drank milk alternatives had lower levels of Vitamin D in their blood than those who drank cow’s milk.

Serving cow’s milk, or an alternative, to children is ultimately a parent’s personal choice, noted Maguire in an interview. He urges families looking to limit or cut out dairy products to chat with their family doctor, or a registered dietitian, first to get a better grasp on the current scientific research and to help ensure children are getting all the calcium, Vitamin D and protein they need.

Shelly Hagen, who often works with older people who are at high risk of developing osteoporosis, takes a harder line.

“I understand the skeptics who see that much of the research is funded by the dairy industry,” said the registered dietitian and educator with the Grey Nun’s Women’s Wellness program in a phone interview from Edmonton. But, she cautions against cutting out dairy completely as she says it’s hard to compensate for the nutrients you’d usually get from dairy products with “broccoli and sesame seeds.”

Holy cow! A vegan bodybuilder?

Macfarlane and De Santis disagree with that assertion.

Both registered dietitians say many of their dairy-free clients are able to get all the nutrients they need — though they admit this does require some effort and diligence. Both experts encourage dairy-free clients to become educated about dairy alternatives before making the switch. People should also read the labels of alternative milk products and opt for those that are fortified and have a low amount of added sugars, advises De Santis. There are also a long list of whole foods that will provide calcium, both say, such as: kale, spinach, collard greens, and, yes, broccoli.

“I like to say I went vegan for the animals, but stayed for the health benefits,” said Macfarlane.

The dietitian says she is leaner and fitter than ever since going vegan for ethical reasons and is currently training for her first bodybuilding competition. Likewise, De Santis says adopting a part-time vegan lifestyle, by limiting the amount of dairy and meat he consumes, has led to health benefits for himself and many of his clients.

Whether you got milk or got almond milk in your fridge most experts can agree on one thing: Cutting out one food category is no silver bullet. Food fads don’t work. What does work is eating a balanced diet consisting mostly of whole, unprocessed foods, paired with a consistent exercise regime. If you want to pour your carton of cow’s milk down the drain, go for it – just don’t expect to wake up with magically with the figure of Kardashian, Paltrow, Beckham, or Fox because you did.

Let us know what you think by tweeting @YahooStyleCA.