By Naini Setalvad
Once a strong advocate of eliminating all dairy from the diet, the author now feels some amount of dairy is necessary to maintain good health. Find out why!
There was a time when milk was a major part of my daily diet. Three glasses of full-fat milk laden with sugar, along with a generous helping of thick curds at mealtimes, was my daily intake. As I grew up, more dairy was added to my diet. Various health problems started, due to excessive consumption of fried food, sugar, and white flour compounded with lack of exercise. My weight ballooned to over 100 kg. Looking back, milk was probably not the problem. It was the fat in it, the sugar, and all that milk powder, with chocolate syrups. From 1996 to 1998, I undertook an enormous journey to lose my hundred kilos. The dairy was there all the time, except for the last five months. However, it was low fat, mostly curds, occasionally paneer. I drank milk with no artificial sweeteners and soon I was off white sugar. My health was fine – no colds, coughs, or high cholesterol – but I was determined to shed more weight. I heard that eliminating milk and milk products and animal products would help in weight loss. I eliminated all of them, and discovered that my weight was much the same.
Then I met naturopaths who were strongly vegan, and I became a fanatic follower.
All animal products were eliminated. My family was upset. I learnt clinical nutrition, where dairy played an important role, but was not completely convinced. I had found that many diseases like asthma, kidney stones, gall stones, cold and cough, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancers can be alleviated, or cured by cutting out dairy. It was difficult convincing sceptical clients at first. However, when they saw the wonderful results for themselves, they were stunned. It strengthened my belief further.
One day, I fainted in my clinic. It pointed to low blood pressure. Over the next few months, my body hurt on and off. My speed and level of exercise fell drastically. In July 2002, I experienced breathlessness and fainted. It took quite a while to revive me, and at the insistence of my worried father, I underwent a battery of tests. A couple of vegans in Mumbai had come up with severe vitamin B-12 and D-3 deficiencies. I went through the same tests, and found that I was drastically deficit. I was then given B-12 injections. For D-3, I included tiny amounts of ghee, curds, cheese, and paneer. I spent long hours basking in the sunshine, swam, and walked. The D-3 levels went up. Finally, I cut down to eating one teaspoon of ghee as a source of fat, and paneer when I occasionally went out. However, I am constantly dependent on supplements for B-12 to date.
I consulted doctors, vegan societies, medical practitioners abroad, and societies like PCRM (Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine). It is now confirmed that a vegan diet causes B-12 deficiency, so if you wish to be a pure vegan, then supplementation is important. When I take B-12 supplements, I am on top of the world. My energy levels are high, my mood great and there is no sign of fatigue.
Immediately, I began to get my clients tested. Many of them turned out to be deficient in B-12 as well as D-3. So I started them on supplements. I was still hesitant about dairy, especially milk, paneer, and cheese. The ghee did not bother me too much, but in spite of that, I decided to cut off dairy again over the past two years – although I must admit that there was the occasional dessert in the form of chocolate. Sunbathing continued, but I got the aches and pains again. I got myself checked – and discovered that this time the problem was D-3 deficiency. I basked in sunlight, increased my level of fat (as D-3 is a fat-soluble vitamin), but it was of no use. I checked out some of my clients. Some had cut out dairy – they needed D-3 and B-12 supplements. Some others had cut out almost all fat. Nuts and seeds in the diet were negligible, as was the oil used for cooking.
My whole approach to nutrition changed in 2006. I now eliminate dairy from the diet only if the health status of a client does not improve. And I ensure that there are adequate supplements of B12 and D3. After joining a health centre at Rajkot in January 2008, I discovered that two per cent of my clients had elevated lipid and thyroid profiles, apart from blood sugar. With a diet of 750 ml of milk and milk products, many of them suffer from B-12 and D-3 deficiency. Obesity was a major problem. I divided the group into three. For one-third I cut out dairy, for one-third I lessened it to 200 ml with B-12 supplements, and for the remaining one-third, I left it the same. The clients, for whom I cut it out completely, were those with thyroid and cholesterol problems. Everybody lost an average of three to five kilos in a month. Their disease reversed, but the vitamin levels dropped drastically. The B-12 levels remained the same for the groups using milk and milk products, but the D-3 did fall, as I did not supplement them. This made me wonder, and re-think about nutrition. Cutting down dairy means lowered B-12 levels, leading to innumerable health problems and dependence on supplements all the time. The D-3 level falling drastically was not only dependent on dairy, but two other factors as well. One is exposure to sunlight, which is rare in urban cities and towns. Being fat-soluble, Vitamin D’s level falls drastically when you lessen the fat content in the diet, which you do automatically in the case of obesity and elevated lipids. Scientifically, vitamin D-3 is a fat-soluble vitamin, and one would require a certain amount of fats to absorb it. For them, the source of fat was ghee, nuts and seeds. When vitamin D-3 levels drop, it can affect your calcium as well as your thyroid and lipid levels.
So I thought of cutting dairy only when any major health problem did not improve. Ensure that your dairy is healthier by switching to organic dairy. This means that the cattle is fed on organic fodder and are not pumped with hormones and pesticides. This is unfortunately not easily available in India, but on increase in demand, the supply should increase.
What is the best way to have your dairy? Milk with turmeric, saffron, or milk masala is good for health minus the sugar of course. Stevia extracts are a good natural sweetener. If you do not have a blood sugar problem, you can flavour milk with honey or organic jaggery.
Finally, remember, if you want to be vegan, which is pure vegetarianism, please use supplements. There are several vegetarian supplements available for B-12 and D-3.
Naini Setalvad is an obesity and health food consultant, columnist for leading newspapers and conducts workshops on healthy eating.
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