What’s the Deal with Dairy? Is it bad for you?
Dairy is a super controversial topic these days. Google search “is dairy bad for you?” and the answers you’ll get are as unclear as well, a glass of milk. Some experts say it’s essential, whereas other say it’s unnecessary and maybe even harmful. Who are we to believe? Let’s separate fact from fiction.
What counts as dairy?
First things first, what counts as a dairy product? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), dairy is “all fluid milk products and foods made from milk.” This includes foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream. What about eggs? Are eggs considered dairy? Nope. Contrary to popular belief, eggs are NOT considered a dairy product. They belong in the “protein foods” category, which also includes meat, poultry, seafood, nuts, and seeds.
Health benefits of dairy
Dairy products are a nutrient-rich complete protein source, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids. They’re also rich in vitamin and minerals, like calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D (only if fortified with it). It’s no secret that calcium is essential for building healthy and strong bones, and dairy products are one the best sources of calcium.
Fermented dairy products, like yogurt, kefir, and hard cheeses, contain natural probiotics which support a healthy gut. In addition to improving digestion, they may even strengthen your immune system.
Is dairy necessary for adults?
Short answer: no. Technically, we don’t need dairy to live a healthy and long life. Although dairy is a good source of protein, calcium and other vitamins and minerals, other food sources also provide these nutrients. These include dark leafy greens, seafood, legumes, tofu and some foods that are fortified with calcium (like dairy-free milks).
So, is dairy bad for you?
Let’s get one thing straight – I love dairy, especially when it’s in cheese form. But there’s no denying it’s got a bad reputation these days. That’s why I read through the research to clear up any confusion on what you’ve heard about dairy.
What you’ve heard: consuming dairy isn’t natural.
An ongoing argument against dairy is that it’s not natural for us humans to consume it. It’s true – humans are the only species that consumes the milk of other mammals. And we’re the only species that consumes dairy products into adulthood. Sounds weird, right? A little. That said, have our genes evolved over the centuries of dairy consumption to accommodate it? Probably.
What you’ve heard: dairy makes you bloated.
Around two-thirds of adults develop some level of lactose intolerance as they age. Lactose what now? Lactose is the sugar found naturally in milk. As an infant, your body produces the digestive enzyme lactase to allow you to digest breast milk. As you age, you may not make enough of this enzyme which makes it difficult to digest the lactose in dairy products.
People with lactose intolerance have uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms shortly after consuming dairy products. These symptoms can include diarrhea, gas, and you guessed it, bloating. If you feel bloated after eating dairy, it’s no coincidence.
Even so, lactose-intolerant people can usually include dairy products in their diet. Here are some strategies to help you better tolerate dairy and reduce uncomfortable bloating:
- Consume dairy in smaller quantities. Smaller quantities are better tolerated since you won’t be ingesting as much lactose at once.
- Enjoy dairy as part of meal. Dairy products are better tolerated when eaten as part of a meal as opposed to on their own, especially if the meal is high in fiber.
- Try fermented dairy products. Fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, and hard cheeses may be better tolerated due to their lower lactose content. Plus, they contain natural probiotics which may help in their digestion.
Lactose intolerance is not the same as having a milk allergy. Individuals with a milk allergy should stay away from dairy products as they can experience a life-threatening reaction.
What you’ve heard: dairy causes inflammation.
While “googling” this topic, I stumbled upon many articles claiming dairy to be harmful and downright dangerous for this one reason: inflammation. Many claiming that since so many of us are lactose intolerant, dairy must cause inflammation in the vast majority of people. When, in reality, bloating and gas don’t automatically indicate inflammation. In fact, research has shown that dairy, especially fermented dairy, generally has anti-inflammatory effects, except in people allergic to milk.
Another proposed reason as to why dairy might cause inflammation is due to the high saturated fat content of full-fat dairy products. But hold the phone – not all saturated fats are created equal. Recent research has suggested that dairy fats have either a neutral or inverse effect on inflammation.
What you’ve heard: dairy causes acne.
So dairy products don’t cause acne, but there’s some evidence that they may be associated with worse breakouts. This is because the hormones found naturally in milk can overstimulate oil glands, and we know that oilier skin is more prone to pore blockages and, ultimately, pimples.
Skim and fat-free dairy products may trigger worse breakouts, although the reason for this is still unclear. Still, a dairy-free diet is not an acne cure.
What you’ve heard: dairy makes you gain weight.
One of the most common reasons people eliminate dairy is to lose weight. The reason people tend to lose weight when they eliminate dairy likely has nothing to do with the dairy itself, but rather how much and what form they’re consuming it in.
If you eliminate dairy and therefore eliminate the huge servings of dairy you were consuming on a regular basis, then (duh) you’ll likely lose weight! And same goes for the form you’re eating it in. Is it the cheese on a pizza or in mac and cheese? Or the milk in ice cream and milkshakes? Get rid of dairy and you won’t be eating any of that! Cue the weight loss.
But dairy CAN be included in a weight loss or weight maintenance plan if part of a well-balanced diet rich in veggies, lean proteins, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Just be sure to keep servings in check – I typically recommend up to 2 servings per day.
What you’ve heard: low-fat dairy is better than full-fat dairy. Wait, no. Full-fat dairy is better than low-fat dairy.
You’ve been told for years to avoid full-fat dairy products like the plague. But now that fat is trending all over social media, you won’t even look at a 0% fat yogurt or the skim milk at Starbucks.
So, which is it? Is low-fat dairy or full-fat dairy better? There is no denying that low-fat dairy products are lower in fat and calories. But the higher fat content in full-fat products may actually help fill you up and make you less likely to overindulge later. Plus, full-fat dairy might not be the threat to heart health we once thought it was. In fact, it may even be cardioprotective.
Before you go chug a milkshake, this doesn’t give you an excuse to go overboard on full-fat dairy products. It also doesn’t give you a reason to avoid low-fat dairy products completely. Both are rich in protein and other important nutrients like calcium, and I believe both can fit into a healthy diet.
If you enjoy your dairy mostly plain, like a Greek yogurt with a handful of berries, maybe opt for a full-fat option. If you like to dress up your dairy with other fat-sources, like a yogurt with berries AND almond butter, maybe opt for a 0% or 2% option. You don’t have to choose one or the other – both can fit into a healthy diet.
Dairy is complicated. It might not be a necessary part of the diet, but it’s a good source of quality protein and calcium. It’s neither a health hero or offender, but if you tolerate, love it, and gotta have it, then eat it! Plus, there’s no evidence that’s is harmful to you unless you’re straight up allergic to it.
Sure, it might make you a little bloated, but you may just need to adjust the types and/or amount of dairy you’re eating. Focusing on fermented dairy products (like yogurt and kefir) may ease the discomfort and may even be more beneficial to your health than worrying about fat content. Whichever dairy products you choose, be sure to opt for plain when possible. Flavored dairy products can be high in added-sugar, and I’d have to write a whole separate blog post on the health risks associated with that.
And if you don’t like dairy, really don’t tolerate, basically want nothing to do with it, then don’t eat it! Just be sure you’re getting calcium in your diet through other foods like dark leafy greens, and dairy-free milks, like almond milk, which are usually fortified with calcium.
Let me know below: do you eat dairy?
If so, what’s your favorite way to eat it?!