Back in high school, I read Skinny Bitch (2005) by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin (I get that the title works from a marketing perspective, but these days it kinda turns me off!). The book was what started me thinking about my diet and being more conscious of what I was eating. I’d already been a vegetarian for several years, but Skinny Bitch convinced me to move toward a vegan lifestyle.   

As you can see from the recipes I post on the blog, I’m still not 100% vegan – I love cheese and can’t see myself giving it up completely. But Skinny Bitch made me question my milk consumption. I’d never really had any issues with dairy, which wasn’t the case with meat. I find meat repulsive, and am pretty certain that I’ll never voluntarily eat a piece of it ever again for the rest of my life. I get grossed out whenever I pass the meat counter at the supermarket; it all just smells like dead animal to me.  

And now I’m slowly developing the same feelings of disgust toward milk and yogurt as well. Occasionally I’ll still have milk in beverages (like when I order a latte macchiato, since I’m not so into soy milk), but I’m noticing more and more that I’m finding milk as unappetizing as I find meat – and that got me thinking about Skinny Bitch again. 

Cow’s milk is a good source of calcium, contains many vitamins, and is said to prevent osteoporosis. Most of us remember being given milk to drinks as kids, right? Apart from all the advertising campaigns, milk is subsidized for kindergartners and primary school students here in the EU. And then of course there’s the UN’s World School Milk Day, which is all about getting people to give more milk to kids. It seems that children in particular can’t get enough of it: when I was in elementary school, they gave us all either regular milk or chocolate milk with lunch – and I didn’t really like either of them then, either!  

It’s also seared into the public consciousness that milk prevents osteoporosisas I mentioned above. However, good bones are not (solely) related to milk consumption. In Asia, for example, where they drink much less milk than we do here in the West, there are – paradoxically, from a Western perspective – far fewer instances of osteoporosis. Exercise and strength-training also help to build strong bones – and then there’s sunlight, which helps us to produce vitamin D. And without vitamin D, the calcium can’t get into our bones in the first place.  

Here in Germany, we consume around 70 liters of milk per year on average – more than in any other country! One reason for this is that 90% of Northern Europeans can digest lactose well into adulthood. In the rest of the world, 90% percent gradually lose this ability after infancy.   

Northern Europeans owe their ability to digest lactose as adults to a random gene mutation that likely occurred around 8,000 years ago – which, in terms of evolutionary biology, was not that long ago at all! Our ancestors lived as herdsmen in the barren regions of Northern Europe, where the winters were long, cold, and brutal. In the months where there were no fruits and vegetables, milk was an essential part of the diet. According to the theory, those who had the gene mutation produced sufficient lactase – the enzyme that breaks down lactose – into adulthood and could drink milk in times of shortage, which allowed them to be better nourished and have more children. Today, there are still lots of people with the “lactase persistence” gene in this part of the world. 

However, most people in the rest of the world do not make enough lactase, and thus cannot tolerate cow’s milk. The undigested lactose sits in the colon and ferments, causing stomach pain and gas. Here in Germany, the trend toward lactose intolerance seems to be increasing. So how come we keep hearing that milk is so good for us?  

Have you ever had untreated, straight-from-the-udders milk? It really does “taste like cow!” Not many of us know this, however: unlike our ancestors, we are truly disconnected from the sources of our dairy products. Advertisers would love you to believe that cows are still being hand-milked in the Alps, but for the vast majority of milk products, that image couldn’t be further from the truth.   

Mass livestock farming is where most of our milk comes from. Each carton of milk was sourced from around 450 cows. These milks are then homogenized and pasteurized, processes that kill bacteria and vitamins alike and prolong the shelf life of milk. Then there’s the use of hormones and antibiotics, which keeps cows pumping out more milk than they’d otherwise make. In 1850, one single cow produced around 1,000 liters of milk per year; today, that figure amounts to at least 6,800 liters. 

But the aspect that resonated with me the most when I read Skinny Bitch – and that has stuck with me to this day – is that cows milk is for calves. It ensures that a tiny calf becomes a cow weighing about 700 kg. We might as well drink gorilla’s milk! By the way, humans are the only beings who consume the milk of another species. And cows of course are the animals we’ve chosen, since they give tons of milk and are easy to maintain.  

For all of these reasons, I’d like to start consuming less milk. At the same time, I don’t think I could give up cheese completely, and I don’t want to be fussy about whether certain foods contain dairy, especially when I’m eating out. Maybe someday I’ll be 100% vegan! But small steps are better than none, right? :-) 

What about you guys: do you avoid dairy products? Have you ever given it much thought? Let us know! 

 

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