Is it criminal to put pineapple on pizza? Is avocado toast overrated? Should we all really be terrified of gluten? Should mayonnaise even be allowed to exist?
When it comes to food and health, there’s no shortage of polarizing opinions on any given subject, but if there’s one topic that’s been especially divisive for years, it’s dairy. “There’s a lot of conflicting information about this on the internet, says registered dietitian E.A Stewart. “As a result, a lot of my clients get confused about whether or not to consume dairy.”
Sound relatable? Depending on the year, milk products have been labeled as either essential for growth and development, or as one-way tickets to heart disease. It’s not surprising that the inconsistent info has a lot of us scratching our heads over whether they have a place in a healthy diet.
What’s more, as The Great Dairy Debate rages on, the appearance of almond milk lattes at coffee shops, coconut yogurt at the supermarket, and vegan cheese on pizza menus indicates that for many people, the decision to go dairy-free has as much to do with being trendy as it does with actual health concerns.
But is giving it up all that necessary? Is dairy really the devil, or are we doing our bodies a disservice by ditching it? We asked five nutrition experts to weigh in.
The Potential Pros of Giving Up Dairy
“Cow’s milk can contain hormones that don’t always jive with the hormones in our own body and can increase the production of waxy matter called sebum in our skin,” says Frida Harju-Westman, in-house nutritionist at the health app Lifesum. The sebum, in turn, can clog pores and cause outbreaks.
“As a result, you may find that cutting dairy out of your diet improves the look and feel of your skin.” This can be particularly true for highly individualized symptoms like eczema, adds Kara Lydon, registered dietitian, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger behind The Foodie Dietitian.
Fewer Digestive Troubles
Prone to bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, or cramping? If you work under the supervision of a registered dietitian or physician, you may find that those awful symptoms can be attributed to a lactose intolerance, Lydon says. You’re not alone, either. "Sixty-five percent of the world’s population has difficulty digesting milk, thanks to lacking the lactase enzyme necessary to break down cow’s milk,” Harju-Westman says. Many people find that going easy on the dairy can beat that bloat.
Cheesy pizzas and creamy pastas are undeniably delicious, but they’re also super-heavy meals and can contribute to a general feeling of sluggishness, especially if you’re eating them on a regular basis. Cutting out dairy can have the ripple effect of getting you to think more carefully about the foods you’re eating in its place.
“For example, to combat the lack of calcium in your diet traditionally gained from consuming dairy products, you might replace these with other calcium-rich foods, such as spinach, kale, and white beans,” Harju-Westman says. “These healthier alternatives may well lead to having more energy as your diet becomes packed with more nutrients.”
If you find yourself suffering from migraines, dairy might be one of the culprits. “Many kinds of cheese contain the natural chemical tyramine, which, for some people, can contribute to headaches,” Harju-Westman says.
Eliminating dairy can have a positive effect, but note that it can also be a double-edged sword since it also means you’re cutting vitamin B2 from your diet, a lack of which is associated with migraines. “Make sure you don’t become deficient in B2 by consuming mushrooms, almonds, and spinach, all of which contain considerable amounts of it,” Harju-Westman says.
The Cons of Giving Up Dairy
You may not meet your nutrition needs.
We all know dairy is a great source of protein for muscle growth and organ health, but it’s a powerhouse in other ways too. Registered dietitian Stacey Mattinson points out that dairy provides three of the four nutrients that are notoriously under-consumed by Americans: calcium, potassium, and vitamin D.
Registered dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth notes that it’s usually easier for adults to get in the recommended 1000 milligrams of calcium per day with dairy; a cup of yogurt, a serving of cheese, and a glass of milk does the trick. Most non-dairy calcium sources contain less of the mineral than dairy sources, so it takes several more servings of foods like tofu, dark greens, salmon, and soy milk to hit the same goal. What's more, many of these plant-based calcium sources have natural substances that inhibit the body’s ability to effectively absorb their calcium, says Largeman-Roth.
In addition to providing calcium, dairy is also a great way to get in phosphorus and niacin, both of which contribute to bone and cardiovascular health. “It’s no wonder that research shows consuming dairy products are associated with lower risks of osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes,” Lydon says.
Your good gut bacteria might suffer.
On one hand, giving dairy the boot can work wonders for folks suffering from bloat and indigestion. On the other, it can mess with the bacteria in your gut. “Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir contain probiotics to help promote a healthy gut microbiome,” Stewart says. If you aren’t lactose-intolerant, keeping certain fermented forms of dairy in your diet can be more helpful than harmful for your gut health.
Your immunity might take a hit.
Less dairy, more colds? While the correlation isn’t quite that direct, you may find that when you stop eating milk products, you’re more tired, or you pick up illnesses more quickly. This could be because you’re lacking in vitamin B12, which is commonly found in dairy and helps to regulate your immune system and fight off unwanted bacteria, Harju-Westman says. Largeman-Roth adds that it could also be because you’re missing out on vitamin D, which can leave your immune system more susceptible to infections. Consult your doctor about whether to take B12 or vitamin D supplements (but either way, stick to getting your flu shot).
It might mess with your mind.
Thinking of eliminating dairy just because your favorite celebrity or Instagram influencer did it? You may want to think again. “A potential downside to eliminating an entire food group is the psychological effect of restriction,” Lydon says.
“Research shows that the reward and pleasure centers in your brain light up even more in response to foods that are off-limits, potentially leading to binges or episodes of overeating.” If your body doesn’t seem to have a physically negative reaction to dairy, trying to restrict it might actually harm your overall health, rather than benefit it.
As it turns out, there’s no definitive winner in the dairy debate. There just isn’t enough compelling research for one stance to come out on top. When it comes to including dairy products in your diet, it truly boils down to what works for your body and what your personal preferences are.
“As an integrative nutritionist, my recommendations are always individualized to my clients. If you enjoy dairy, have no major health complaints, and feel good consuming it, I see no reason to give it up,” Stewart says.
On the other hand, if you’re ethically opposed to animal products or if you have symptoms of autoimmune disease, digestive distress, or skin issues, working with a professional to experiment with a dairy-free trial might be worth it.
If you decide to go dairy-free, be sure you’re making up for any nutrients you may miss out on by opting for healthy substitutes—there are plenty! Get your protein from lean meat or legumes, and calcium from tofu, almonds, or leafy greens. Look to eggs, fatty fish, or fortified plant-based milks to meet your vitamin D requirements and whole grains for phosphorus.
As long as you’re filling in the gaps, you can rest assured that eliminating dairy doesn’t have to mean compromising your health. But if you can’t imagine life without your morning Greek yogurt bowl or the gloriousness of a cheesy pizza, don’t feel compelled to give dairy up just because “everyone” is doing it (they’re not).
Our advice? Go with your gut!