What constitutes a healthy diet continues to be an endless debate. As a nutritionist, I hope to solve these concerns for my clients, yet the topic of dairy remains a hot-button discussion. For every patient who tells me about their love of yogurt, there is another telling me how they have sworn off dairy due to its inflammatory effects.
The passion on both sides of the dairy coin are strong, but in the end, the science is usually the best referee. Here’s what you need to know about dairy.
Dairy may help improve health.
Multiple studies show that dairy may have benefits to human health. A 2016 meta-analysis found that dairy intake may help to reduce the risk of common chronic diseases and improve health. It’s important to note however, that some of the authors of the study have received funding from dairy organizations in the past.
Regardless, there are plenty of studies that have found dairy to improve bone health, overall metabolic health and reduce the risk of obesity. Additionally, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that fermented dairy products may reduce the risk of heart disease.
More research is needed to support the idea that dairy is inflammatory.
Experts are divided on whether dairy is inflammatory or not, and the science does not make a conclusive determination either. A 2017 systematic review looked at inflammatory markers in relation to dairy consumption. The study concluded that eating dairy led to an anti-inflammatory effect in individuals with metabolic syndrome, and a pro-inflammatory effect in individuals who were sensitive or allergic to dairy products. Another study found that low-grade inflammation did not occur in obese or overweight individuals who consumed dairy.
Despite this data, there has been evidence published that links dairy to pro-inflammatory changes in the body. One study found that milk consumption could lead to increases in insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) that negatively impacts the risk of chronic disease. Furthermore, studies show that those individuals with allergies or sensitivities to milk or milk protein may develop gut inflammation when milk is ingested.
The bottom line is, whether or not your body agrees with dairy is unique to you, and more research needs to be done to figure out why exactly some people may want to avoid dairy.
Not all types of dairy are equal.
Dairy comes in a variety of forms, and from cows that have led different lives. In the world of dairy, you can get pasture-raised, full-fat, low-fat and even varying degrees of digestibility.
Let’s start with the fat options. Studies show that perhaps the greater benefit to obesity and dairy consumption are seen when full-fat (not low-fat) dairy are consumed. Higher fat varieties of dairy may create more fullness, and thus positively impact weight. A new study has found that full-fat dairy is not associated with an increased risk for heart attack, or stroke. Yet, a recently published article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, claims that higher fat dairy options can increase LDL cholesterol, fractures and all-cause mortality. If you drink large quantities of milk, then low-fat and skim may be good options however if you are someone who is looking to lose weight and only averages a serving or less each day, then whole full fat may be best.
Studies show significant differences between organic dairy and conventional dairy. Conventional options have been found to be higher in hormones, pesticides and even illegal antibiotics (authors noted that the organic versions showed virtually none of these). Additionally, studies have shown that organic dairy is about 50% higher in omega 3 fatty acids than conventional dairy.
Finally, fermented forms of dairy, like yogurt, sour cream and cheese offer gut benefits that positively impact health.
There’s a reason that dairy alternatives are booming.
Is it unnatural for humans to drink the milk of another animal? Many of my patients and a significant portion of society, say yes, and choose to remove dairy from their diet. Despite the evidence on the benefits of dairy, many people are turning to nut-based milks instead. It's important to note that excluding dairy from the diet does not conclude in poor health. On the contrary, humans do not actually need dairy. Therefore, individuals that forgo it in their diets, and obtain nutrients in other forms will likely live a long and healthy life.
Dairy alternatives are widely available and come in virtually every form that dairy has to offer. Choosing nutrient-dense options means electing for those with fewer ingredients and no added sugar or additives.
Many studies and experts conclude that it is unclear if dairy is beneficial or harmful. Therefore, consumers should understand all the facts, while considering their personal health, goals and needs, before proceeding with dairy consumption. We are all different. Some individuals will do well with dairy, while others may struggle. Take the time to find out what works for you and resist the urge to take a stance based on faulty research or personal opinion. There is no “one-size-fits-all” diet. The dairy debate is a great example of that.