Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
11 Jan

Dairy and Its Effect on Insulin Secretion (and What It Means for Your Waistline)

Insulin is an old, old hormone. Evolution has preserved its structure across hundreds of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of species. Fish, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals all secrete insulin with fairly similar amino acid arrangements (insulin from certain species of fish has even been clinically effective in humans), so, clearly, it is a vital hormone. But insulin gets a bad rap in our circles. Why? With metabolic syndrome laying waste to the citizenry and with insulin playing an undeniable role, it’s difficult not to be soured on this hormone.

And yet we need insulin to shuttle all sorts of nutrients into cells, like protein and glycogen into muscles. It’s there for a reason, so to demonize it is misguided. It’s chronically elevated insulin and insulin resistance – you know, the hallmarks of metabolic syndrome – that are the problem. You might have noticed a softening stance on carbohydrates around the paleo and Primal blogosphere. I think it’s simply an acknowledgment that in healthy people with healthy glucose control and healthy insulin responses who engage in glycolytic activity, starch is fine in measured amounts. And if insulin increases to shuttle that starch and protein into the insulin sensitive muscle cells, so be it. That’s why it’s there.

But not everyone (anyone?) lives a perfect Primal existence. And even if you did an understanding of how insulin works and what foods and behaviors affect it’s production should be high priority. Especially for the millions of people immersed in the modern, industrial lifestyle, with deranged metabolisms from years of poor eating habits (i.e. most of us).

Which brings us to dairy and its effect on insulin.

Dairy intake, you see, stimulates insulin secretion. Lots and lots of it – more than can be explained by the lactose (a sugar) content. In fact, the lactose content of dairy doesn’t even have a big insulin effect when compared to other carbs. This is surprising to some, since the general understanding is that insulin is released primarily in response to carbohydrate intake. What gives? Well, in evolutionary terms, think about a growing beast needing to maximize the utility of every drop of the precious liquid. With dairy, it’s the protein plus the carbs that are responsible for the large insulin release. Take milk, the most egregious “offender.” Both skim and whole milk (PDF) elicit significant insulin responses that you wouldn’t predict from looking at their protein and carb contents, and the fat in whole milk doesn’t blunt it (maybe non-homogenized whole milk would be a different story… I don’t know). Cream and butter are not particularly insulinogenic, while milk of all kinds, yogurt, cottage cheese, and anything with casein or whey, including powders and cottage cheese, elicits a significant insulin response. In one study (PDF), milk was even more insulinogenic than white bread, but less so than whey protein with added lactose and cheese with added lactose. Another study (PDF) found that full-fat fermented milk products and regular full-fat milk were about as insulinogenic as white bread.

What’s going on here? It comes down to the amino acid composition of dairy proteins, specifically the amino acids leucine, valine, lysine, and isoleucine. These are the truly insulinogenic proteins, and they’re highest in whey (which is probably why whey protein elicits the biggest insulin response).

This isn’t new. I’ve written about protein’s insulinogenicity before, but dairy goes above and beyond Primal protein sources like meat, eggs, and fish. The question we should be asking is this: if you wish to include dairy in your diet AND have no issues with lactose or casein intolerance are the insulinogenic properties of certain types of dairy still problematic from the standpoint of health and/or weight control?

This study claims they are. Children were given strict diets of either lean beef or skim milk, and the skim milk diet induced hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance after just seven days. It sounds troublesome, but they used skim milk – a refined, fundamentally altered food. I’m not prepared to render judgment. Another study found that dairy failed to improve insulin and the metabolic risk parameters in overweight and obese subjects, but it again used low-fat dairy instead of full-fat dairy. I’m simply not convinced they’re interchangeable.

If full-fat dairy really did have similarly negative effects on the insulin response that eventually led to the metabolic syndrome, you wouldn’t see studies showing that people who ate the most dairy fat were at the lowest risk for diabetes. You also wouldn’t see the high number of epidemiological studies (I know, I know) linking full-fat dairy intake with lower risk of heart disease and stroke, both of which are strongly linked with insulin resistance.

I think it’s more accurate to say that acute insulin spikes are different from chronically elevated insulin levels, especially when it comes to appetite regulation and metabolic derangement. Consider this study, whose authors gave either whey protein isolate or whey protein hydrolysate to subjects 30 minutes before a pizza meal. Subjects given whey protein isolate, but not hydrolysate, reduced post meal blood glucose and insulin levels, and ate less pizza. The whey still released insulin, but it didn’t linger for very long and it led to improved post meal numbers. It wasn’t chronically elevated. The subjects weren’t hungrier, contrary to what you might expect from someone who’d just experienced a jump in insulin.

No Easy Answer.

Dairy’s not for everyone. I don’t like milk, so I stick to good cheese, pastured butter, cream and the whey in Primal Fuel when I’m in a hurry, while avoiding most straight-up milk, but I think good milk may be fine for many people. As always, experiment. Dairy seems to stall weight loss for some people, so you might try taking it out of the diet if you can’t lean out. Dairy also seems to improve strength and mass gains for lifters, so you might try adding it if you’ve been lifting particularly hard. See what works, and what doesn’t. Insulin doesn’t have to be feared as much as it should be managed, just so long as the rest of your metabolic toolkit – in which insulin takes a prominent position – is in order, you’ve got stress dialed in (or out), you’re getting good sleep, and you’re putting in the necessary physical work.

It’s also important to consider the big picture when judging the suitability of various foods. It helps to tell stories about the food we eat, to think about narratives. Grains aren’t just little morsels of protein, carbs, and fiber bred for our enjoyment. They are baby plant eggs. Those macronutrients are there to sustain the seed’s growth and those micronutrients are there to protect it. They are the plant’s lifeline to immortality. They are literally shaped by the hand of evolution to survive and ravage the digestive tract of the poor sap that swallows them and discourage further consumption. Grain is only food because we deemed it so. Dairy? Dairy is objectively, absolutely food. Its fat, protein, and carbs are there to be consumed, albeit by young cows, sheep, and goats. It’s meant to spur growth, to pack on muscle and fat and weight. And yeah, eating dairy protein causes an insulin spike, but that can be useful if you know what you’re doing.

In the end, personal results matter most. Health outcomes concern us; detached insulin response numbers sitting in a table in some paper mean little if your personal experiences corroborate the evidence that consistently shows that untouched, full-fat dairy likely promotes better glucose tolerance, better weight control, and more resistance to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. On the other hand, those studies mean little to the person whose weight loss stalls after a couple glasses of non-homogenized, raw pastured milk. Try as we might, we can’t – nor should we – ignore our own experiences. Have your experiences with dairy been positive or negative? Let the answer to that question supersede what PubMed says.

Some suggestions:

  • Go fermented. Stick to full-fat yogurt, kefir, and cheese.
  • Go heavy. Stick to butter, cream, and half-and-half.
  • Go pastured. Find a source of pastured dairy. From what I understand, Trader Joe’s carries a cream-top organic milk that hails from the Strauss Family Creamery in Northern California (they never provide sources, but the TJs stuff tastes remarkably similar to the glass bottle stuff from Strauss and the cream has the same consistency), which uses mostly grass and grass silage. Their “European Style Yogurt” also comes from Strauss and is very good (and cheaper than Strauss-labeled yogurt in other stores).
  • Go raw. Stick to trusted sources.

What are your experiences with dairy’s insulinogenic effects? They are very real, but do they seem to bother you? Are you worried about insulin spikes in response to dairy protein?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Could not agree more about going as raw as possible with dairy. Sadly, it’s becoming harder and harder (and more expensive) to find. The FDA seems to be having a war against raw dairy. My answer? Own a cow and a few chickens of your own. We’re working on just that.

    The Primal Palette wrote on January 15th, 2011
  2. Great Post!
    I eat cheese (fermented ==> Vitamun K2) in amounts most people would deem unhealthy (grin). But I am french.

    And I love KerryGold butter on my peas.

    I would love to eat raw cheese aged LESS than 60 days (has all the good bacteria in it!), but you have to go to Europe for that (illegal in the US).

    But I think you may have missed an important factor as well. It’s called “digestive mobility”. I read a paper where they tested rats w/ cheese vs. milk. Milk outpaced cheese in getting out to the lymph nodes. What may be the “bad part” of milk is that it gets into the system TOO fast and overloads adults (perhaps fine for babies). So the dosing rate effects could be the root cause, whereas cheese (and butter) “move” a lot slower allowing a better response by the adult body.


    Iluvatar wrote on January 15th, 2011
  3. Hi – I am grateful for this information. I have been desperately trying to find a natural cure for my 7 year old daughter’s eczema condition. After some comments from websites like yours and other friends I immediately cut off all dairy products and her skin improved dramatically, however, her skin flares up with no rime or reason. The doctor has ordered a blood test for Gluten…we’ll see. I was wondering what do you think of Almond milk? Any other natural food that may neutralize eczema? I would truly appreciate an answer.
    One desperate dad!!!

    Henry wrote on January 15th, 2011
    • My chronic eczema completely disappeared when I supplemented Vitamin D to sufficiency (Pre-Primal, too!) See this link for more info:

      Oh, and I still eat lots of dairy–mostly cheese and cream!

      Sondra Rose wrote on January 17th, 2011
    • My wife struggled with eczema for years.
      Last year she went gluten free and her eczema disappeared. Doctors never made the connection, it was just something she tried on a whim. If she slips and eats gluten she will break out shortly thereafter. As long as she is gluten free her skin stays perfect.

      Eli wrote on January 25th, 2011
    • My excema started going away when I gave up grains, and I think nuts aggravated them too. Not sure but maybe worth a shot.

      Daniel wrote on August 13th, 2014
  4. Arnold once said, “Milk is for babies. Men drink beer” :)

    Brian wrote on January 22nd, 2011
  5. I’m glad to see so many people have diverse opinions on this; I’ve been looking for a definitive ‘what to do’ guide for dairy for a while and could never quite find one. I’ve been doing primal for about a month now consciously, and near-primal about a year before that (non-consciously, I just never got much into grains and sugar, other than the occasional chocolate or plate of buckwheat groats) – I’ve actually upped my dairy intake since going primal (not what I should be doing, I know), and I’ve found it only beneficial. These days I consume a lot of cream cheese, full-fat cheese, mascarpone, cream, and the like – basically all the dairy that’s about 99% fat… and it seems to work just like butter. Everything seems to just function better with it. So i’m glad to see there’s some tolerance for it even in the primal lifestyle :)

    Mammoth toppler wrote on February 3rd, 2011
  6. I was glad to see this article. I’ve found milk causes intense stomach pain, so I don’t drink that anymore, but I love cheese, full fat yogurt and cottage cheese and butter. I was concerned to read about the insulin response, but I’m fortunate to be naturally thin. I do Crossfit, and I’ve intuitively felt that if I gave up dairy, I’d waste away to nothingness. I don’t seem to have problems with skin or blood sugar, so I’ll continue to enjoy cheese and yogurt. BUT — it is definitely good to know that it’s not a good choice for everyone.

    Page wrote on February 8th, 2011
  7. Does anybody know anything about the opioids (spelling) in milk?
    Apparently there is a Opium-like substance in milk (that isn’t killed through pasteurization), which makes you long for more….

    When I tried the experiment on my Dachshund it seems that way. He wasn’t hungry and turned his head when I offered the raw goat milk. I took my finger and shoved a few droplets in his mouth…within a minute he turned back to the milk and drank it all.

    Donnersberg wrote on April 17th, 2011
  8. I ran across something interesting about yogurt and carbs today – that the bacteria in yogurt actually eat the lactose in the yogurt so you aren’t actually even getting the carbs and sugar that are listed on the nutrition info. Here is the link –

    Beth wrote on April 19th, 2011
  9. this post interests me. Ive been eating primal for about a year and a half now. I am very into olympic style weightlifting and train using the clean and jerk and the snatch, I sometimes train with powerlifting movements as well. in this post mark mentioned dairy having positive effects on some lifters strength and mass gains is slightly confusing, since it mentions that dairy elicits an insulin spike. i was under the impression that insulin can have negative effects on growth hormone levels? would the positive effects of short insulin spikes outweigh the negatives if this is true? he also mentions that the insulin can be helpful “if you know what you’re doing”. this confuses me a lil bit.

    owen wrote on April 21st, 2011
  10. I read somewhere that some proteins in bovine milk look similar to pathogen proteins and trigger an immune response in people. Guess I want my immunesystem to focus on the real bad viruses and bacteria. Haven’t been able to get confirmation on this, but stoppen using dairy untill I know for sure. Using coconutoil instead of butter now.

    André wrote on June 20th, 2011
    • Not exactly. The milk protein is identified as foreign and the body builds antibodies to it, but the milk protein looks similar to natural body proteins — things like collagen — and the body attacks them by mistake.

      Doug F wrote on June 20th, 2011
  11. “Cream and butter are not particularly insulinogenic, while milk of all kinds, yogurt, cottage cheese, and anything with casein or whey, including powders and cottage cheese, elicits a significant insulin response.”

    This is pretty astounding to me, as I’ve been drinking a ton of whey protein shakes as a meal replacement due to my busy schedule with coconut oil and/or heavy whipping cream. I had no idea whey protein elicits an insulin response. So trying to lose weight and drinking two or three of these shakes per day could really prevent me from doing so? What do other people drink for protein powders that won’t elicit such a response? I’ve been trying to keep the carb count low (less than 4 grams) and sweetener like Stevia. Jay Robb’s seems to work for me on the Egg Protein powder, but I’ve had a ton of Mercola’s whey and Jay Robb’s whey protein. Any help would be great.

    John V wrote on July 31st, 2011
  12. Hello Mark

    Thanks for the interesting article! Didn’t know much about the topic. I love dairy. And what can I put in my milk?

    One onjection, however. You said:

    ” Grains aren’t just little morsels of protein, carbs, and fiber bred for our enjoyment. They are baby plant eggs. ”

    Doesn’t that hold true for chicken eggs as well? I don’t see much difference here.


    Bettina wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  13. Just watched Pedro Bastos’s AHS presentation and then found this and am really glad I did. This morning I fell asleep for hours after consuming a glass of raw kefir. (I also had grass-fed cheddar cheese and heavy cream.) First I got dizzy, then I was OUT. Wondering if there could be a leaky gut component. This nutritional rabbit hole is DEEP.

    elise a. miller wrote on September 18th, 2011
  14. it’s = it is, it has
    its = possessive pronoun

    Correction to article: And even if you did, an understanding of how insulin works and what foods and behaviors affect its production should be high priority.

    Paula wrote on November 2nd, 2011
  15. I have been drinking a half gallon of whole milk every day at work instead of solid meals.

    I eat one large meaty meal in the evening, and will occasionally supplement my intake with frozen mixed berries and unsalted almonds or brazil nuts.

    I have been losing weight an average rate of 1 pound per week.

    I love milk, and I love Paleo. I changed my life.

    Abaddon wrote on January 19th, 2012

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