Is DAIRY Paleo? And is it “Real Food?”

This post was originally published in 2012. It has been revised and republished.
You might also enjoy my post Is it Paleo? And is it Real Food?
Have you ever been told (or scolded, or chastised, or holler’d at) that dairy isn’t Paleo? 
Most of us have had this argument – er, discussion. I’ve been Paleoin’ since around 2008, and as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) it’s certainly an issue I address often.
I also discuss the dairy controversy in my best-selling book, Eat the Yolks. (And for my next trick, I’ll discuss pseudo-scientific pitfalls like appeals to authority).
Because I view a Paleo plan and a “Real Food” diet as nearly interchangeable these days, I’m going to address the two questions – is dairy Paleo? And is it Real Food? Together.
On one hand, dairy protein intolerance is common. Milk has been studied to be insulinogenic (as in, can cause an undesirable insulin response) and inflammatory. Conventional milk – the milk that’s available in 99% of supermarkets and that most of us are raised on from childhood – is generally from cows raised in massive confinement dairies, who are treated poorly, prone to infections, and fed an unnatural diet (part of the reason the milk has to be pasteurization-bombed into oblivion).
Dairy in general can be a highly processed food, first because it’s pasteurized for “safety” (read: heated to incredibly high temperatures to compensate for its shady beginnings by killing any microorganisms that thrive in factory farmed dairy).
Then, for commercial uniformity (read: so any cream that’s left after removing the bulk of it to be made into ice cream doesn’t separate, float to the top and scare people) it’s usually homogenized; meaning the fat globules are mechanically forced through a sieve to make them uniform in size and to force them to distribute themselves uniformly throughout the product. It’s yet another form of processing.
Of course, that’s if the milk isn’t stripped of its natural fat (“skim,” “lowfat”). Most conventional dairy is stripped of its fat, however, and when the fat is gone, so are any fat-soluble vitamins that came with it.
That said, since, as with humans, cows and their milk are only as nutritious as the food that the cows eat, when they’re fed the wrong food, their milk has very little built-in nutrition anyway. The same goes for the butter, cheese, and other products made from it.
Finally, dairy, in particular, milk, is non-human boob juice, which, if you ask almost any anti-dairy fanatic, means no human should consume it, ever, because no other species drinks the milk of another mammal.
So. Yeah. Dairy sounds pretty disgusting. Not to mention highly processed, not at all nutritious, and not worth touching with a ten-foot udder.
On the other hand, there are many folks who don’t consider conventional dairy products to be real food any more than they consider a McDonald’s burger patty to be a healthy source of protein. Yet they consider milk as it occurs in nature, and dairy products made from it, to be as good a choice as a grass-fed steak. Why? Because not all dairy products are the same. Not all beef is the same. You’ve got to know your food to know how to judge it, and it’s possible that we’re judging dairy too harshly.
A few reasons why: first, because the studies available on milk’s inflammatory properties and insulinogenic properties appear NOT to differentiate between conventional milk, described above, and milk as it occurs in nature, as I’m about to describe.
Milk as it occurs in nature is from cows (and, of course, other animals, because, as Greg Focker states, you can milk anything with nipples) raised on pasture and fed a natural diet. It’s full-fat (nature doesn’t “skim” anything). Because the fat is intact and the cows eat the proper food, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K2, are present.
Now, if we humans do choose to “skim” the fat from milk, we can create butter or ghee with it. These are full-fat (fat is your friend), vitamin-dense foods that have been important parts of many cultures’ diets for a very, very long time.
(If you’d like to know more about what A, D, and K2 do, read my book. They are fat-soluble vitamins and they’re beyond important – and they’re available only from animal foods. Deficiency of one of them has even been suggested to be a major cause of heart disease.)
Dairy as it occurs in nature is neither pasteurized nor homogenized. (This is often called “raw.”) This means that, in its natural state, it’s completely unprocessed. It’s a food that contains all the nutrition necessary for babies to grow – which can certainly mean that it’s just for babies. But it can also mean that it’s ridiculously nutritious. 
As I discuss in my book, when people first domesticated dairy goats as many as 10,000 years ago, they were actually securing a reliable source of super-dense nourishment that required only a bit of vegetation – the kind only digestible by ruminants, so generally useless to humans – to produce nutrition.
The use of dairy as it occurs in nature is starting to look like a pretty ingenious thing.
On the issue of lactose and dairy protein intolerance: some humans actually have evolved the ability to digest lactose, likely more than 10,000 years ago, suggesting that dairy DID provide a reliable source of nourishment throughout history for many populations. Some of us actually did evolve to drink it. Further, while lactase, the built-in enzyme present in raw milk that enables the digestion of lactose, is said to be destroyed by pasteurization, it remains intact in raw milk.
Add this to the myth-busting I do in Eat the Yolks regarding dairy proteins and cancer, whether animals besides us humans drink the milk of other species, and whether a caveman would pass on a stick of butter, the case against dairy just isn’t so cut-and-dry.
Yes, Virginia. Dairy as it occurs in nature IS real food. Humans across the world have thrived on it for thousands of years. It’s a perfectly dense source of fat-soluble vitamins, protein, conjugated linoleic acid (a cancer-fighter), fat, and carbohydrate. We could literally live on nothing but milk if we had to. The same can’t be said of, say, kale. (So, if you ask me, if anything, it’s kale that’s not “real food.” #kaleistheworst)
But should we eat dairy? When it comes to the real, raw, as it occurs in nature stuff, is it worth it?
First, I want to reflect on how lucky we are that we can even ask that question. We have such free access to any food we want, from any corner of the world, that we can thumb our noses (or is it our thumbs? Can you thumb your thumb?) at a perfectly nutritious food that can be gleaned from a symbiotic relationship with an animal by simply providing that animal with pasture to graze on.
The question of whether we should drink it from a nutritional perspective is vastly different from the question of whether dairy is “Paleo.” From a nutritional perspective, the answer is simple: sure. If you want to, and it works for you, and you’ve got access to dairy as it occurs in nature, such as the raw milk, butter, ghee, cheese, or cream of pasture-raised cows from a source you trust, go for it.
Though we don’t need dairy for calcium, it’s a great source of nutrition if you tolerate it as part of a varied diet based around other real, nutritious foods. Like almost any food, from strawberries to peppers, not everybody tolerates everything.
And if you don’t tolerate it, awesome. More ghee for me.
But is dairy Paleo?
I say: caveman would if he could.
Look, here’s the thing: Dairy might not be on the “yes list” from the branded, trademarked Paleo Diet. It may be heavily evangelized against by many by-the-book devotees. But are we Paleo folk looking to split hairs over what cavemen did or are we looking to critically evaluate issues of nutrition and common sense?
Paleo man didn’t eat the same stuff any of us Paleo folk eat today. Paleo man didn’t eat Angus beef, which has a history of just a few hundred years as we know it. Paleo man didn’t eat beefsteak tomatoes – hell, he didn’t even eat heirloom tomatoes. Their meat was different. Their forage was different. What does that mean to us? It means we gotsta think.
No, Cave Men didn’t make butter.  They were likely more preoccupied with staying alive than with domesticating wild animals, milking them, and churning their milk into delicious, creamy, buttery goodness to put atop their roasted sweet potato. So, no – Cavemen didn’t eat dairy as we know it today.
Healthy, traditional, native cultures – like those studied by Dr. Weston A. Pricedid eat butter. And milk. And cream. And cheese.
How do we connect those dots?
With a perspective beyond the “dos” and “don’ts.” Yes, folks – we’re gonna get hung up on the details. (Remember when being detail-oriented was considered a good thing?)
What we know of our ancestors, whether we’re talking Cavemen or more recent, healthy, native cultures, is that they valued the most nutrient-dense foods above all others. 
Dairy as it occurs in nature IS nutrient-dense. Many of the nutrients found in dairy as it occurs in nature are the same nutrients found in liver, bone marrow, and the fermented contents of animals’ intestinal tracts. Caveman’s paradise.
Yes, cow’s milk is for baby cows. Yes, milk is boob juice. But us top-o’-the-food-chainers have a long history of consuming the various emissions and in-to-out contents of the animals we eat. Just read this book for a whole chapter on recipes using Milk, Eggs, and Sperm. (If you had to choose two…)
Modern conventional dairy is the problem. It’s the factory-farmed skim milk we once poured over Fruity Krunchy Pebble Smackers. It’s the Ultra-Pasteurized White Water we once chugged with trans-fat and gluten-filled cookies.  It’s the part-skim pre-shredded mozzarella we once ate in our stuffed-crust pizzas.
Perhaps the real question here is whether we should even care about whether something is by-the-book “Paleo,” OR if we should actually consider something to be Paleo precisely because it’s nutritious, historically valued, and eaten in its whole, natural state.
And just for fun, here’s a cool fact: Interestingly, gut bacteria actually produce butyrate, a fatty acid also found in butter, from certain types of fiber that we eat. You’re gonna get your butter, by hook or by crook.
Stephan Guyenet, PhD, writes about some of the amazing properties of Butyrate here, and I talk more about this in Eat the Yolks.
Both the Paleo and Real Food lifestyles should be one of deep thought, continued learning, and valuing context. In a way, that sucks – we want an easy, rules-based existence. We want a simple Handbook with simple Laws. And, in a way, this is simple enough to break down into four easy steps:

  1. Eat the most nutrient-dense, nutrient-available foods possible that you tolerate well.
  2. Use the lessons of the past to inform your choices in the present.
  3. Eat unprocessed foods: animals, seafood, veggies, roots, tubers, healthy fats, and “traditional foods” when you can – including dairy, if that works for you.
  4. Print out Nutrition in 100 Words and put it on your refrigerator.

Did you make it this far? If so, leave a comment. Are you a Butter Believer? Share your thoughts below!

Thanks for reading!

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32 Responses

  1. yes to the dairy goods: cream in my coffee, ghee in my skillet! love your “caveman would if he could” rationale, insofar as it applies to the details of “paleo/realfood diets.” thanks!

  2. Love this article. I could not agree more with your points. We buy raw grass fed organic milk and it is delicious, local, nutritious and makes us feel wonderful. I believe in whole real (local ) foods not a list of do’s and don’t s. Ps love your book!!

  3. Hey Liz,
    Keep on doing what you are doing. Comment by comment you are undoing for me years of false information. I continue to be so confused by all that I have learned in the past, with what I am learning now, but everything you have been saying makes so much more sense than the garbage I am trying to forget. Thanks for all of your efforts.

  4. I was a little nervous about raw milk because my young son is getting to the age where he’ll be drinking it, but I found a local dairy that grass feeds, only gently pasteurized, and doesn’t homogenize. I was very excited.

  5. i just love this…love! I have a sometimes reaction to casein. But my husband does raw milk from down the road and I do it at times and I love ghee and can sometimes be found making it:). Real dairy is the only way and it is for sure real food and I’m a believer in real food vs. paleo and think they are both pretty interchangeable (WAPF too). Hooray for this article, thanks for writing!

  6. I am a butter beliver! I love having access to raw dairy for my family. Dairy causes me inflammation and MS symptoms. That just leaves more fur the rest of the family. They all love there boob juice! Beth~Real Food Inspired Me

  7. I love organic pasture-raised butter! I was using Kerrygold but Organic Valley has a good one. I put it in my coffee and eat cheese on the daily. Organic, pasture-raised, raw when I can find it. However, my husband has eczema really bad lately and I’ve had this obnoxious acne under my chin for months! (I’m 30!) so I feel that we both have inflammation. I don’t drink milk, he uses it on his cereal (gluten-free…as close as I can get him) but I’m thinking of eliminating it for a while to see if that helps! I hope not though! 😉

    1. You never know, Becky! Experimentation is key. And at different stages of life, different foods might affect the skin differently. I used to get flares from any dairy, now I can have quite a bit and have not a single issue at all. The landscape of our bodies, our digestive systems, and our level of stress and inflammation definitely plays a role!

  8. For the record: cats, dogs, pigs, and chickens will all eat milk, not just humans. Most farms with dairy animals feed extra milk or whey (from making cheese) to their other livestock.

    1. Of course this is true. Cats, dogs, pigs and chickens don’t sit around arguing over whether dairy is Paleo, either 🙂
      You’d probably find Pottenger’s Cats an interesting read.

  9. Interesting read.
    I have a 4 and 2 year old, both who had upset stomachs after consuming ‘anything’ dairy.
    These dairy products were of course purchased thru supermarkets.
    I read an interesting book in regards to curing my 4yo’s cavities, and as general anaesthetic and rippid 4 teeth was out of the question, I decided to give ‘real dairy’ a go.
    2 months later, the kids consume raw milk, cheese, ghee, kefir etc. Not once have they had an adverse gut reaction, and together with a ‘real’ food diet (with vert limited fruit – sugar) the 4yo’s teeth are healing!
    Just like some people insist on organic produce, there needs to be more in the way of educating the public of the ‘process’ dairy products go thru before they reach you for consumption. It is my opinion that people are not lactose intolerant, but the majority are ‘process’ intolerant.
    good writeup Liz!

      1. It is not in the best interest of modern companies (food, wholesale, or pharmaceutical) to preach this methodology Liz..
        eating organic whole foods does not have to be expensive. I source just about every consumable from local organic growers buying direct. My grocery bill halved. Organic is expensive thru supermarkets, and this is because it has ORGANIC written on it – read the ingredients label and make up your own mind whether it is in fact organic or not!
        Either way, good to see some solid movement in the last couple of years, people are slowly educating themselves on healthier lifestyles – we are still the minority, and often the ‘weirdo’s’!
        Keep up the good work 🙂

  10. This is such a great read. I love the explanation. My husband used to have issues with dairy. We switched to Paleo-ish (I say “ish” because Paleo police might come a knockin since we have dairy and occasional white potatoes), and ever since he hasn’t had issues. The reason now makes perfect sense: the raw dairy has lactase in it!

  11. Great article! It’s so interesting how a food can become morphed and twisted from its original form. Commercial dairy operations freak me out, all those growth hormones and don’t even get me started on pasteurization propaganda. In canada if we want raw milk we have to look long and hard to find a local farmer who trust us and doesn’t think were secret health board spies, then we have to claim that its for our chickens or pets because heck no human in their right mind would consume unpasteurized milk, gasp! But I do love me some fresh raw cream and good raw cheddar!

  12. For us cheeselovers – what should we look for on a cheese label that keeps it in the ‘real food’ realm? Non-pasteurized? Any other buzzwords? Thanks!

  13. Great post, Liz. I loved reading about this in your book and I find this topic really fascinating (especially how it relates to my skin). I have been trying to get my parents on the real food train… they are getting there slowly, but surely. Papa Honey Bee still loves some cereal every once in awhile – if he is drinking conventional milk, which do you think is the “best of the worst?”

  14. Love raw milk! It used to make me nervous that it’s labeled (by Florida law) “Not fit for human consumption.” But after doing my research and reading your book, I decided to give it a whirl. Now I love raw milk and cheese. But I won’t touch most of the store-bought overprocessed stuff.

  15. I love the argument “humans are the only animals that drink milk beyond infancy” argument for not drinking milk. First of all I don’t think it is all that true. Someone in an earlier post mentioned dogs, cats, chickens and pigs. I also know that goats being both cleaver and mischievous can learn to drink their own milk. So I don’t think that this is a valid argument for not consuming dairy. However, humans ARE to my knowledge the only animals who: cook their food, mix ingredients together or follow a recipe, worry about cross contamination. Strip nutrients from foods (Skim milk, white flour, ect) and then add them back in, anything done to food in a factory I’m pretty sure that only humans do as well as counting calories or obsessing about portions. We should totally stop doing all that stuff.

  16. Your Nutrition in 100 Words IS on my fridge! 😀 A Nom Nom Paleo Michelle head magnet holds it up. Typing that out makes it sound weird. 😛
    I’ve become a huge fan of ghee. I do really well with butter, and I finally gave ghee a try. So good!

  17. I think this is a very well reasoned post. I am definitely a fan of the occational raw dairy treat and I use butter semi-regularly, but I also think we live in a somewhat dairy obessed culture (which is pretty understandable given how awesome cheese and butter are.) Lactase persistence is an amazing example of environmentally mediated gene expression, but it is still only present in a fraction of the population – roughly 30% world wide, which leaves 70% of people with varying degrees of lactose intolerance and yet we live in a world where dairy derivatives are in so many things! That’s why the real food/Paleo approach can be so helpful, it allows you to actually know what you are consuming. We shouldn’t necessarily be poo-pooing agricultural foods, but we should be avoiding Neocaloric ones 🙂

  18. Hey Liz
    Do you know of any research regarding autoimmunity and dairy? I’ve been symptom free/in remission with MS for 7+ years. I follow Terry Wahls but do eat rice and butter. I do fine with butter and I am wondering if I could incorporate raw cheese or yoghurt. I’m nervous to try it but I think I’d feel more confident of there were some research to support re-introduction. Any thoughts on this? Thanks!

    1. Hey Marie! Kind of a big question and I’m not sure I can gather this for you, but try and see what she has to say! She has tons of info on autoimmunity! I think the biggest issue with dairy is cross reactivity, but one thing the Paleo community doesn’t talk about is how calming to the system dairy can be, which is a good thing. So my thoughts are if you tolerate it, go for it, just keep an eye on things.

  19. Hi, Liz! I read your book Eat the Yolks twice! Love how easy you make complicated things to understand! My question is if gently pasturized milk from grass fed cows is a good option? Raw milk is very hard to get my hands on, and my husband is really hard to get off the conventional knowledge train. We have a milk man service where the milk comes in glass containers from small farms, but it has been gently pasturized and homogenized. Should I be looking for other options? Thank you so much!

    1. I think it can be good for some people, but as with any food, there are also some people who wouldn’t tolerate it! It would probably be worth trying, but if your body isn’t loving it, listen to your body 🙂

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