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. I need to lose one stone in weight and have been following the primal diet for 6 weeks now, i don’t really know where i am going wrong as i can’t seem to lose any weight think it might be the dairy so am going to try to eliminate dairy for a few weeks to see if this makes a difference, just wondering is it ok to use unsweetened soya milk instead, is this a better choice?

    Irene wrote on March 16th, 2012
  2. I have found that all dairy, with the exception of butter, leaves me wanting more and more and more. When I recently started living primal I dropped all dairy except heavy cream (intended only for my coffee) and butter. I found myself craving the heavy cream in the evenings and when temptation would get the best of me I would end up making cup after cup of mousse. Now that the entire half gallon is gone in less that a weeks time I am retiring from cream. So, obviously, for me even the high fat dairy products are not an option. Butter aside 😉

    Hillary wrote on March 18th, 2012
  3. Confirmed! I had two giant dogs and they would drink the milk of ANYTHING I gave them. They loved it. Cats are also quite famous for their love of milk.

    Their tongue’s as a matter of fact are designed to scoop up liquid much better than water. It is almost as if nature intended it somehow…

    rkd wrote on March 20th, 2012
  4. I’m originally from Uganda, and we have a lot of milk drinking cultures in my country of origin. By “milk drinking” I’m referring to a maasai-like tradition of depending on milk for greater than 70% of your daily caloric intake.

    We have pastoral cultures that have no particular ethnic categorization, then we have the Hima, the Tutsi, the Karimojong (who have similar lifestyles and diet preferences to the Turkana people of Kenya), Itesots, and many others.

    Almost without exception all these people are incredibly lean and one would wonder why that is the case if dairy lends itself to creating spikes in insulin secretion. (The women tend to be on the heavier side, particularly the Hima women, but that’s an aside.)

    JLMK wrote on April 9th, 2012
  5. I’ve been drinking raw dairy for the past week (every day, it tastes so good!).
    I’ve done my measurements today and I’ve gained visceral fat, before it was 4, now 5 points.
    I think raw milk is good as a post workout drink or when you have no food available, just don’t mix it with food or you start growing (well, getting bigger like a calf).
    After all, milk is meant for babies to grow fast. I think it’s ok to have it occasionally though.

    Diana wrote on February 4th, 2013
  6. I keep Lamancha dairy goats and love having kefir kale (and maybe cranberry and ginger) smoothies. I found that making raw dairy goat products, like chevre, cheese, yogurt and kefir to be consumed daily really helps me get the most enjoyment out of my salads and fruit, and as its a great source of protein too, it really helps keep down my need to procure too much extra meat for every meal.

    Shaelee wrote on February 22nd, 2013
  7. I just finished Dr Lustig’s Book FAT CHANCE, and he allows unlimited whole milk because the sugar in it does not turn into Fructose, which he says is the really toxic sugar. Lactose is fundamentally different and not harmful, so he claims.

    Is he wrong?

    William wrote on May 20th, 2013
  8. I just bought shares in a cow since it’s not legal in my state to purchase raw milk, but owners of a cow can share the milk. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but I now have own the rights to 8 gallons of raw milk per month for my family of 4, along with options to buy raw cheese, yogurt, butter, and cream as the caretakers of the farm have extra milk to provide these additional items.

    I always keep cream in the house, and it wasn’t until I read this article that i made a connection. Occasionally I get hungry late at night, but I am tired and nothing really appeals to me. On some of these occasions, I have poured about a 1/4 cup of cream and felt completely satisfied. I felt horribly guilty … or maybe afraid is a better word … for doing this, since I think most of us have been taught that eating cream or butter was asking for an instant heart attack.

    I’ve never experienced any issues that I recognize with dairy products, but I think going raw will be a telling experience. My daughter has issues with dairy, so I’ll be certain to post some observations on it’s affect on us if anyone is interested.

    Eileen wrote on June 12th, 2013
  9. I love cheese. I recently discovered that cheese especially 8 oz of aged Parmesan causes me intestinal distress. Vegan video’s talk about casomorphins in bovine milk being 10 times greater than mother’s milk. The day after the cheese overdose, I woke up totally “woozy” and wobbly for hours. I was punch drunk and constipated as if I had a large dose of morphine. Strange phenomenon. I include a Vegan link that discusses the issue. I don’t agree with their positions, but I feel much better without hard cheeses.

    Jeff Silverman wrote on July 31st, 2013
  10. I could never give up dairy! In light of this article, I feel like I should give it a shot and eliminate dairy from my diet just as an experiment, but I don’t think I could do it. Although I don’t drink milk (due to its higher carb content), I love my full fat cheese and greek yogurt and cottage cheese too much.
    I just wanted to mention that a lot of people feel better after eliminating it, which is great! But some also might have better weight loss because it might not just be the dairy, but the fact that butter, cream and full fat cheese are high in calories. Has anyone actually considered that as well?

    Elle wrote on November 3rd, 2013
  11. Where is the evidence that dairy cream and butter do not raise insulin? In this study, a saturated fat meal of butter together with carbohydrate caused a very hyperinsulinemic response:

    and pay attention to the behavior of insulin for the saturated fat meal:

    I tried Paleo for two years with heavy dairy cream and my fasting blood sugar exploded. I am only now controlling it a combination of low carb with 120 grams of starchy carbs (three cups of rice) per day. I’m using MCT Oil with the rice, and I have removed all of the dairy cream. I’ve brought my fasting glucose down from 115 to 85.

    I’m not sure which saturated fats are causing insulin resistance, but I’m quite sure that in my body at least some of them do. I don’t need any protein to duplicate the above result.

    Pone wrote on February 2nd, 2014
  12. Cream and butter SHOULD NOT be considered, since they totally lack the insulinogenic aminos in question. End of story.

    Juan Valdez PhD wrote on June 13th, 2014
  13. Ok. So now I am really confused. A year ago, I went on GAPS with no weight loss. Then I moved to paleo with no weight loss. In between and current, i am a BIG raw milk kefir maker/ drinker. About 10-12 oz in the morning with 3 free-range, farm-raised, bug – eating eggs ( sometimes yolks only, sometimes yolk and whites) . My milk comes from a2 certified cows, raw milk right from the cow. Am I now understanding that my 15 pound weight gain is from this? I am 61, female, still have menapause symptoms, and have this new THING around my gut that I didn’t have before I changed my diet– the doctor calls it insulin resistance. Has my super duper bacteria – rich kefir done this to me???????? I would really appreciate some help. Thanks.

    Wendy wrote on December 24th, 2014
  14. This seems to be the new controversial debate… what do you think about goats milk and goat yogurt for weight loss?

    As for me, I always ferment my milk into homemade kefir.. thoughts? I definitely find I get a much leaner look when I’m off most dairy.

    Thanks for flushing this out, I agree with the end recommendations you finish off with

    Jannine Murray wrote on January 16th, 2015
  15. I didn’t read all the comments so I don’t know if I am double-saying something, but I read that eating protein has the body release glucagon, which counterparts the insulin. Shouldn’t this be taken into account? This is the link to the site:

    Karien wrote on January 27th, 2015

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