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.
Sound relatable? Depending on the year, milk products have been labeled either as essential for growth and development or as a one-way ticket 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 suggests that for some people, the decision to go dairy-free may have as much to do with being trendy as it does with actual health concerns.
But is giving up dairy all that necessary? Is dairy actually evil, or are we doing our bodies a disservice by ditching it? We asked some nutrition experts to weigh in.
Is dairy bad for you?
There are some legit reasons to avoid dairy: You may have an allergy, have stomach issues after eating it, or have ethical concerns about eating animal-based products.
But generally, if your body tolerates it, dairy is a good source of essential nutrients and may have some health benefits. Can you get those nutrients from other foods? Yep. The choice is really up to you.
Sure, we’re the only species that drinks another animal’s milk and the only one that continues to do it into adulthood. But some cultures have been drinking milk for centuries, so humans have adapted to digesting it.
Still, about 68 percent of people can’t absorb lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Dairy consumption super common in some cultures and not at all common in others.
Some folks are in the camp that drinking any dairy milk after babyhood is generally unnatural or that cow’s milk should only be for calves. But generally, what’s “natural” or “unnatural” is pretty vague. We do lots of healthy things that may not seem very natural.
The important things to consider are whether you want to consume dairy and whether milk is a healthy part of your diet.
Some dietitians believe that milk is not a required part of a balanced diet and that you absolutely can get the nutrients you need without it. Calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients found in dairy can also be found in foods like fish, leafy greens, and beans.
However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that the bioavailability of calcium (that is, how easily your body can absorb and use it) varies depending on the food, and some plant-based sources of calcium may not provide as much as dairy products would.
Ultimately, dairy products from cows, goats, and other animals aren’t detrimental for most people and can be eaten without any issues. But if you follow a plant-based diet, then eating dairy may not be the right choice for you.
Lactose intolerance occurs in people whose bodies lack the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose. If lactose doesn’t get broken down during digestion, you might end up dealing with nausea, cramps, gas, or diarrhea. It’s not super serious, but it can be super uncomfy.
Doctors used to advise simply avoiding dairy, but that’s not always the case today. There are ways to eat dairy without discomfort or to help your body digest dairy, including:
- trying different dairy products to see which ones don’t cause symptoms
- eating dairy with lower levels of lactose, such as harder cheeses and yogurt
- eating lactose-free or reduced-lactose milk products
- using lactase pills or tablets when consuming dairy products
Finding dairy products that don’t cause symptoms or finding ways to ease digestion of them can allow you to keep your cereal and milk on Saturday mornings.
If you find that these methods just aren’t working for you, feel free to replace that dairy with plant-based alternatives and supplement your diet with nondairy foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, protein, and other nutrients you’d otherwise get from dairy. A registered dietitian can help you find ways to get the nutrients you need.
Dairy milk has been associated with benefits for metabolic health and disease prevention. It may seem counterintuitive, but the full-fat variety is actually associated with reduced weight gain and decreased risk of obesity.
But comes to weight gain, genetics, initial body weight, and other factors may be at play. More research needs to be done to determine all the factors that can affect weight gain and consuming dairy.
In some studies, yogurt and fermented dairy products have shown an even stronger association with beneficial metabolic outcomes.
But the research is still mixed, so we don’t know the whole story just yet.
Since we’re talking metabolic health, we should mention that a lot of research has focused on whether dairy helps prevent type 2 diabetes. So far, the science suggests that overall dairy consumption may be associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
A 2019 research review also noted some connections between dairy consumption (especially that good yogurt) and type 2 diabetes prevention. Another 2019 review of studies agreed that dairy products within a balanced diet don’t have negative effects on blood sugar or diabetes development but noted that more research is needed to be sure.
It’s clear that dairy, and especially yogurt, isn’t likely to hurt your metabolic health within a nutrient-dense diet, but we’ll surely see ongoing research on just how beneficial it might be.
Dairy milks of all varieties do have some connections to acne. The reasons are pretty unclear, though, so don’t panic just yet. Researchers are still investigating how strong the connection is between milk and acne.
If you’re concerned about acne, talk with a doctor or dermatologist for some solutions. It’s probably not all the fault of your Cherry Garcia. The good thing is that studies haven’t suggested a connection between cheese and yogurt and acne, so we can all raise a cheese stick in celebration.
Other skin conditions like eczema also have some associations with milk allergies. Milk allergies are different from lactose intolerance since the food triggers an immune response.
If you’re having skin reactions when drinking milk or noshing on other dairy products, contact a medical professional to discuss whether dairy might be the cause.
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 Americans commonly don’t get enough of: calcium, potassium, and vitamin D.
Registered dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth notes that it’s usually easier for adults to get the recommended 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day by eating dairy. A cup of yogurt, a serving of cheese, and a glass of milk does the trick.
Most nondairy calcium sources contain less of the mineral than dairy sources do, so it takes several more servings of foods like tofu, dark greens, salmon, and soy milk to hit the same goal.
What’s more, some of these plant-based calcium sources contain natural substances that inhibit the body’s ability to effectively absorb their calcium, says Largeman-Roth.
In addition to providing calcium, dairy is 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,” says Kara Lydon, registered dietitian, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger behind The Foodie Dietitian.
On one hand, giving dairy the boot can work wonders for folks who deal with bloating and indigestion from lactose intolerance. But on the other, it could mess with the bacteria in your gut.
“Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir contain probiotics to help promote a healthy gut microbiome,” says registered dietitian E.A. Stewart.
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.
And what about immune health? 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.
According to nutritionist Frida Harju-Westman, this could be because you’re lacking in vitamin B12, which is commonly found in dairy and helps regulate your immune system and fight off unwanted bacteria.
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.
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. The decision on including dairy products in your diet truly boils down to your preferences and what works for your body.
“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 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 to 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 up dairy just because “everyone” is doing it (they’re not).
Our advice? Go with your gut!