Shortly after we all went into lockdown a few weeks ago, my running team had a group call with Sally Bergeson, owner/founder of the women’s running apparel company, Oiselle. Sally spoke about doing the work of Pulling Out Poisoned Roots, and since I’d just received the team journal for this year, and knowing that Sally is an activist and visionary on what are often the most controversial topics and particularly women’s rights and sport, one could surmise exactly the poisoned roots she was referring to.
I had recently re-begun examining my own poisoned roots, and thus have spent most of the spring working through old programming, stories about my own limited potential and unable-to’s that stem from their foundations in early childhood and youth. As I have been working though the next layer of this ‘brain training’ this spring—for beginning this process many years ago was one of the most important steps in healing my autoimmune condition—I’ve been daily reminded about how difficult it is to rewire the brain, to heal old wounds and stories we’ve been told or have told ourselves. And every single day, I’ve been reminded of my privilege.
For I’m in a place right now where I have the ability to prioritize this type of self-work. My basic needs are met. I’m in a place of relative health. I don’t have unconscious or blatant systemic biases working against me. And I’ve thought about those that come from experiences of more extreme trauma—for a refresher on the impact of childhood trauma has also been part of my spring quarantine for my part-time public health role. How for individuals who’ve experienced extreme trauma, if they ever get to a point in life where they have the resources to undergo this type of psychological training, how much more difficult, how much more healing, they need.
For as much as it’s a nice thought that we’re all simply different shades in a crayon box—a saying I’ve seen a few times the past couple weeks—the circumstances we each are given make that a phrase that is naïve to the reality of our lives.
Today I’ll share a little story about that as it relates to dairy foods, who is supposed to consume them (everyone) as opposed to who can actually digest and absorb them (mostly white, non-minorities without other health problems). This is a mostly nutritional but also partly political post, but the end result is an incredibly easy DIY non-dairy ‘milk’ recipe with just a couple ingredients (nut or seed butter, water, pinch of salt). Since I’ve spent more than a decade immersed in public health and the politics of food systems before going into clinical nutrition, this is my way of combining and educating through a lens that speaks to all of them – if you’d rather just get the recipe, feel free to simply skip to the end.
Whenever I have both the blender and the nut butter jar out, William tends to ask me if it’s time to milk my nuts. It’s a slightly humorous household joke, but without fail it reminds me of long-ago days in childhood when I watched my mom do a similar yet more complicated process of filtering the cream from fresh milk from our milk cow, Betsy. I was always fascinated and yet disgusted at the same time because for whatever reason, I did outgrow my early childhood dairy allergy for a while, but the smell and taste still repulsed me, leading to routine sessions of sitting extra-long at the kitchen table until my stubbornness gave way and I figured out a way to make myself gag the milk down.
Nowadays, I’m routinely reminded how times are a little different. In my parent’s era, making their children drink their milk portions every day was a necessity. How else was I to grow strong bones? Also, dairy farming is in my family history. I say things are different because there are a plethora of non-dairy milks available nowadays, so much so that dairy farmers in our country are struggling as never before. We now know that many individuals really struggle to digest dairy, whether because of lactose intolerance or a dairy protein allergy, as I have.
Lactose, the sugar in milk, requires the enzyme lactase to digest and absorb it properly, and it’s now well known that many populations worldwide, particularly individuals of East Asian and West African descent, are less likely to have the lactase enzyme. Additionally, this enzyme can become faultier as one ages, so lactose intolerance can arise in adulthood, making certain milk products challenging. All in all, approximately 65 percent of the population worldwide has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy, yet only about five percent of individuals of Northern European descent are lactose intolerant.
On the dairy protein sensitivity/allergy side of the equation, the reasons for its increasing prevalence are fairly widespread. We can develop an immune response to virtually any food, and the overload of disruptive environmental contaminants (toxic air, water, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, etc.), as well as high stress and imbalanced lifestyles (think lots of work, not enough sleep and nutritionally balanced meals), can wreak havoc on our digestive systems and over time the body begins to build antibodies to everyday foods that we could handle before. For individuals with seasonal environmental allergies, as well as those that generally tend to have excess mucous and feel ‘puffy,’ they often feel quite a bit better after removing dairy—since it’s protein structure can be tough to digest and therefore increases inflammation throughout the body.
So in our current global circumstances, there are a lot of individuals who are intolerant to dairy for varying reasons, or for environmental or other personal reasons are choosing to avoid it. And yet in the USDA’s MyPlate, the official dietary recommendation put out by the US Government, dairy is a food group that all individuals are recommended to consume daily, since one’s daily calcium needs are easily met with 3-4 servings of milk or similar dairy products. I still teach nutrition classes part time in a USDA-funded public health role in my local community, and it has frustrated me time and again to have to teach a model of nutrition that only ‘fits’ the needs of a certain (ahem, mostly white) population. This is an example of systemic bias at work – and also showcases the lobbying role of the dairy industry in making our federal government’s nutritional guidelines.
While recognizing that calcium is an important nutrient to consume in adequate amounts lifelong–adults need approximately 1000-1200 mg per day depending on gender, age, and activity level–there are other ways to consume it, like ample calcium-rich leafy greens. Those are often my first recommendation, because they have a calcium bioavailability similar and perhaps even better than dairy milk. We also need the many other nutrients that make up balanced bone metabolism including Vitamins A, C, D, K, B-vitamins, other minerals such as magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, boron, manganese, potassium, iron, vanadium, and more. Eating lots of leafy greens as part of a balanced whole-food diet happens to also include many of that plethora of nutrients also.
There are several more foods on my bone support and maintenance list, and one of those categories is rotating through many different nuts and seeds. Sesame seeds and tahini, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds and cashews particularly. None of these on their own will supply your daily calcium needs – if avoiding dairy, you need to eat diverse and greens-heavy meals for that – they do provide a range of many other bone supporting nutrients.
Today, let’s focus on the alternative to milk when one is looking for the texture and mouthfeel of using milk, such as in an extra-creamy porridge, cooked grains, to top your evening cereal fix, or to round out a smoothie. That’s when I’ve been reaching for my blender, nut butter jar, and the time to milk nuts scenario. Bonus points for no longer adding to the overflowing milk-carton collection in my laundry room that is supposedly recyclable during certain days of the year, but will more likely end up in the trash.
As a little aside, if it wasn’t clear from the above, I’m not overtly anti-dairy or a proponent that all of us should follow a dairy-free lifestyle, but I strongly believe in individual nutrition and not one-size-fits-all viewpoints that are already biased towards certain groups in power and with privilege.
The Easiest DIY Non-Dairy Milk, makes 3 cups
For this, I recommend starting with raw nut/seed butter with zero other ingredients. Currently, I prefer Artisana Organics brand, which also happens to source from local California farms when possible and commits to sustainable and fair-trade ingredients. There are other brands that are similar, so do your research and learn where your food comes from. For nutritional diversity, I recommend rotating through a different type of nut or seed each jar or batch you use.
1-2 Tbs. raw nut/seed butter (raw cashew, almond, sunflower, or pumpkin butter, or raw tahini)
3 cups water
pinch of salt
- In a high speed blender, combine 1 to 2 tablespoons of your raw nut/seed butter of choice with 1 cup water. I prefer using 1 Tbs. for each batch, but doubling the amount will make for a creamier milk. Blend for about 1 minute until the nut butter is completely worked into the water.
- Then add 2 more cups of water, a pinch of salt, and pour out into a glass container. That’s it. You’re done and ready to use!
- Store extra in the fridge and remember to shake/stir before each use as particulates will settle in the bottom.
This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.