Dairy Free Diets: Are They Dangerous?

The dairy isle of a grocery store.

It is not dangerous to consume a dairy free diet.

There are hundreds of sources that argue that dairy-free diets are dangerous. The common point between them is that cutting out dairy endangered your bones.  

The National Osteoporosis Society's conducted a diet survey and later hailed dairy as "vital in building bone strength when you are young." People have been telling me for as long as I can remember that human beings require dairy for proper nutrition.

The idea that diary is important not a new one. I remember when a friend of mine first went vegan, our friends gave him a lot of friendly cautions about his weak bones.

Where did they get that idea? The media. I will argue that the "Your bones will snap if you don't eat dairy" statement makes little sense. Here are two facts I think will put this fallacy into perspective:

Dairy Free Diets were the Norm

Humanity ate no or little dairy until about 10,000 years BCE. Dairy consumption didn't become widespread until another few thousand years had passed. How is that for context?  

Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, have existed for about 100,000 to 200,000 years and their predecessors, which probably had similar calcium requirements, have been around for millions of years.

The prehistoric hall in the natural history museum.

Early humans ate primarily mammoth and raw vegetables.

I will not include none bipedal primates. I am not doing this because I believe that walking requires more calcium than swinging from trees but to make my job easier we can draw the line there.

Our first ancestor that walked up-right on two feet was Australopithecus, a hominid species that existed about four million years ago. Imagine a timeline that shows the time span of bi-pedal hominids and draw a little line about 10,000 years ago. Everything after that line is the period in which humans have consumed dairy. Everything before is the period in which humans or human-like creatures consumed zero dairy-those dangerous dairy-free diets. If you want the math that means that for 99.75% of this timeline hominids consumed no dairy.

How did these people survive? How did they even form bones? Studies show that their bones were stronger than ours. Compared with other primates and earlier human species, contemporary humans have lightly built skeletons.

The Rise of Agriculture

Right about the time we started to milk cows, our bones became less dense. Now, the cause is likely poor agricultural diets rather than increases in dairy consumption. But the point is that you do not need dairy to have strong bones.

Dairy cows in a field.

Agriculture and animal husbandry developed in the Middle East

According to the studies, the bone density of people who did not farm was 20% higher than modern people. It is very unlikely that this change resulted from some crazy genetic mutation. It also implies that strong bones do not require dairy.

Modern people who engage in high levels of exercise achieve Paleolithic bone densities. Our current bone deficiencies are the product of decreasing levels physical activity. But that does not imply you need dairy for strong bones.

If you analyze human history from the perspective of dairy and bone density, you would conclude that the rise of dairy farming was the worst thing that ever happened to our bones. Now, to be fair, decreasing bone density is not dairy’s fault. After all, dairy is certainly not bad for your bones. But dairy is not the only solution.

Wide Spread Lactose Intolerance

The second observation that renders these claims about dairy-free diets less believable is the existence of lactose intolerant ethnic groups. According to the National Institute of Health, about 65% of people on planet Earth are lactose intolerant post infancy. That is the majority of the world. If you want examples of ethnic groups, East Asians are 90 plus percent lactose intolerant.

80% of indigenous Americans are lactose intolerant. Ashkenazi Jewish populations come in at 60 to 80 percent. As Milton Mills mentioned in "What the Health,” 70% of African Americans are lactose intolerant.

If you are still afraid of weak bones on a dairy-free diet, take a look at a study conducted on elderly Buddhist nuns found that the vegans had the same density as the non-vegans. There are plenty of good sources of plant calcium.

I hope that by considering the fact that many ethnicities are majority lactose intolerant, and that bipedal hominids haven't consumed dairy for 99.75% of the time we have existed, we persuaded you that dairy free diets are okay.  And remember that those vegan nuns had the same bone density as non-vegan nuns. These observations create a strong case against the claims that dairy-free diets are dangerous.


The remaining question, will the myths about the necessity of dairy survive? We will see. You do not need to consume dairy. If you are intolerant, avoid it. If you are a vegan, there are other ways of consuming digestible calcium.