Is Dairy Healthy? The Whole Story – Part 1

About the Author: Eric Cressey

In light of the overwhelming popularity of a recent guest blog on the topic of sports nutrition and healthy food options, I wanted to keep the ball rolling with some regular nutrition content.  This week, Brian St. Pierre kicks off a three-part series on everything you want to know about dairy.  Enjoy!  -EC

Dairy: perhaps the most controversial food in history.

While some people would argue that we shouldn’t consume dairy at all, others recommend getting at least three servings per day. There is fat-free, 1%, 2%, whole, cream, butter, and more. There is also the pasteurization, ultra-pasteurized and raw debate.  Who is right?  What fat content is the best?  Should you eat raw dairy?

Let’s find out.

The History of Dairy Consumption

The fact of the matter is that humans have been consuming dairy in one form or another for 10,000 years. Many cultures (e.g., people of the Lotchenstal Valley, the Masai, Mongolians) have subsisted on tremendous amounts of dairy without any problems often associated with it. The difference is that traditional dairy was from cows that ate grass, got exercise, breathed fresh air, and enjoyed the sunshine. Their quality of life – and therefore quality of milk – was excellent.

Fast forward to today and things have changed.  Milk demand has increased greatly in the last hundred years, and so the industry responded.  Cows moved off family farms and onto Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), which are essentially huge conglomerate farms where they:

a)      are fed tons of corn,

b)      stand in their own waste

c)       are given antiobiotics to prevent the illnesses from that corn consumption and the unsanitary living conditions

d)      are given copious amounts of growth hormones to speed their growth and increase their milk production.

Appetizing, I know.

Traditionally, cows were allowed a seasonal reproductive cycle and were milked for only six weeks after giving birth.  Today, conventional dairy farmers inseminate cows only a few months after giving birth, which can compromise the immune system and decrease milk quality. What’s worse, it will also cause a huge increase in estrogens in the milk.

These estrogens can fuel the growth of several tumors and are linked to prostate, breast and ovarian cancer.  Cows allowed to graze on grass and have seasonal reproductive cycles have significantly less estrogens in their milk, at levels that are not thought to be problematic.

Below is a table to give you a little perspective on the changes in the lives of milking cows brought about by the move off the family farm and onto the CAFOs.

Why Grass-Feeding Rules

While we have certainly made cows more efficient milk-producing machines – going from 336 lbs to 20,000 lbs of milk produced per year – this has had a tremendously negative impact on milk quality. Milk produced in this manner is not what I would consider a healthy food option, and I am definitely not a big fan of this conventional dairy due to the poor production, poor quality, high estrogen content, and loss of important fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.  Fortunately, dairy from pasture-raised grass-fed cows is an entirely different animal.

Since these cows are actually allowed to eat what they were designed to eat, their milk quality is vastly superior – containing more actual nutrition like increased levels of vitamin A, vitamin K (in the more powerful form of K2), omega-3s, and CLA.  In fact, grass-fed cows have been found to contain up to 500% more CLA than their conventionally fed brethren!

In addition to grass-fed dairy being far superior to conventional grain-fed dairy, full-fat dairy is also superior to low-fat or fat-free, contrary to popular belief or recommendations – but we will get to that in Part 2!

About the Author

Brian St. Pierre is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He received his degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition with a focus in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Maine, and he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the same institution. He was the Nutritionist and a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA for three years. He is also the author of the Show and Go Nutrition Guide, the accompanying nutrition manual to Eric Cressey’s Show and Go Training System.

With his passion for seeing his clients succeed, Brian is able to use his knowledge, experience, and energy to create highly effective training and nutrition programs for clients of any age and background. For more information, check out his website.


Malekinejad H, Scherpenisse P, Bergwerff A. Naturally Occurring Estrogens in Processed Milk and in Raw Milk (from Gestated Cows). J. Agric. Food Chem., 2006, 54 (26), pp 9785–9791

Qin LQ, et al. Estrogen: one of the risk factors in milk for prostate cancer. Med Hypotheses. 2004;62(1):133-42.

Ganmaa D, Sato A. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers. Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(6):1028-37.

Dhiman TR, Anand GR, et al. Conjugated linoleic acid content of milk from cows fed different diets. J Dairy Sci. 1999;82(10):2146-56.

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