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 resides in a murky area for some of you guys, but I think most of us can appreciate a good slab of grass-fed butter, maybe a bit of raw cheese, and some fermented dairy, either kefir or yogurt. A select few may not. If dairy makes you feel bad, don’t use it – it’s unnecessary – but if your avoidance stems purely from principle (ie, “it’s a little too Neolithic for me; I’ll just play it safe and avoid it altogether”), the latest study on dairy fat might nudge you toward its thick, viscous, white embrace. Researchers found that patients who ate the most dairy fat, from things like cream, whole milk, and butter, had a 60% lower risk of developing diabetes than patients eating the least dairy fat.
Those who ate the most dairy fat also showed the highest plasma levels of a fatty acid called trans-palmitoleic acid, prompting the study’s authors to zero in on that particular fatty acid as the potentially causative factor. There is a tendency to reduce foods to their individual constituents. Individual constituents, after all, can be “candidates for potential enrichment… and supplementation,” which makes a doctor’s job that much easier, and makes it easy to explain away “paradoxes.” Just wait: trans-palmitoleic acid is gonna be the new red wine when it comes to explaining the “French paradox.” At the end of the day, though, they do admit that “efforts to promote exclusive consumption of low-fat and nonfat dairy products … may be premature.” Hey, it ain’t much, but I’ll take it.
Dairy, as I’ve discussed, is a somewhat hazy matter in the Primal Blueprint. With adequate reasons from solid thinkers both for and against, I’ve relegated dairy to the provisional, the peripheral, the speculative even as I choose to modestly indulge in it. As with most Primal gray areas, some forms appear less controversial than others. Raw, fermented, full fat dairy offers much more health benefit with fewer reservations than processed, low fat renderings. (Isn’t that always the case?) From a Primal perspective, however, dairy still remains somewhat of an enigma. Hardly one of the original, universal foods in human evolution, milk entered the scene at a surprisingly late date – only some 9,000 years ago with the advent of animal domestication. Researchers have long traced the “progression” of Grok’s dairy intake from the Middle East into Europe, where milk actually became an unusually significant dietary staple. New research into the dairy “drift” now offers more details than ever surrounding this relatively isolated, albeit dramatic, evolutionary event.
How did we survive all these years without functional yogurt products? If it weren’t for Yoplait and Dannon enhancing our digestive facilities, I bet we’d never get anything done in the bathroom. I, for one, can’t recall the last time I had a satisfying bowel movement without concurrently sucking on an extra large Purple Gogurt as I sat astride the toilet.
Yoplait and Dannon are responsible for injecting more culture into our lives than Warhol, The Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and ancient Athens combined. I love the way those two superpowers ultra-pasteurize their yogurt so as to rid it of any naturally-occurring, unpredictable, rogue probiotic cultures (unfettered bacterial growth? – no thanks) before supplanting them with nice, orderly probiotic cultures (and not too much of them, thanks). Mother nature? Natural selection? Ha! As if natural foods could improve my immunity and digestive health better than multi-national corporations. You think sauerkraut has your best interests in mind?
I knew going in this was going to be a tricky one, because dairy, especially raw and/or fermented full-fat dairy, resides in a Primal gray area. The literature, the evolutionary reasoning, and the anecdotal reports all unanimously point to sugar, cereal grains and legumes, processed foods, and industrial vegetable oils as being net negatives on the human metabolic spectrum, but dairy is somewhat different. The other Neolithic foodstuffs we can rule out because the science condemning them is fairly concrete and they weren’t on the menu 20,000 years ago. Heck, they weren’t just off the menu; they were basically unrecognizable as food in the raw state. Dairy, on the other hand, is a relatively recent food chronologically, but it is most assuredly and obviously a viable nutritive source in its raw form. It’s full of highly bioavailable saturated fat, protein, and carbs – in equal portions. You could conceivably survive on milk alone (I wouldn’t recommend it, but you could technically do it; try doing the same with honey or raw millet). Milk is baby fuel. It’s literally meant to spur growth and enable a growing body. Our bodies definitely recognize dairy as food, even foreign bovine dairy. But is it good nutrition?
A couple weeks ago I gave this “Dear Readers” format a try. There was such a tremendous response that I may make it a regular feature of Mark’s Daily Apple. What do you say? I love giving my advice and opinions, but add mine with all the knowledgeable readers of MDA and then you really have something. Take a look at some of the questions I’ve received below and share you stories, experiences and knowledge in the comment board. Thanks everyone!