Inflammation — it’s a dietary bogey monster we all probably try to avoid. And since you’re here, you might be wondering if your favorite dairy products add to the inflammatory load.
Well, except for people with food allergies or lactose intolerance, dairy doesn’t promote inflammation. In fact, it actually has anti-inflammatory effects.
Here’s the lowdown on the dairy-inflammation connection, plus advice on how to combat inflammation in general.
Is dairy inflammatory?
- Current research shows that dairy does not promote inflammation in the body.
- Some research has indicated that dairy is actually anti-inflammatory.
- Following an anti-inflammatory diet can promote health and reduce disease risk.
Milk has gotten the brunt of some inflammation scapegoating over the years, in part because of its effects on acne.
There may genuinely be a link between drinking milk of all fat levels and breaking out, according to a 2019 meta-analysis. And since acne is an inflammatory condition, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that milk is an inflammation-boosting beast.
Experts have found that drinking the stuff can be an underlying cause of acne (but aren’t sure exactly why).
Also stoking the fires in the dairy-causes-inflammation camp is the association of milk with digestive issues. If you (or your sister or your BFF) consistently get sick to your stomach after a milkshake, you might come to believe dairy is pro-inflammatory bad news.
Although many people experience digestive discomfort from a tall glass of milk, it doesn’t mean it’s creating inflammation.
Instead, milk-related tummy troubles are likely due to lactose intolerance — a worldwide problem that affects 30 to 50 American adults, with higher percentages among communities of color.
We’ll beat the drum again: Multiple clinical trials and systematic reviews have found no association between milk consumption and increased inflammation markers.
Opt for grass-fed dairy
When budget allows, you may want to splurge on grass-fed and low fat dairy products.
“Grass-fed cows make milk that is higher in beneficial nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA),” says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, Director of Research and Nutrition Communications for the International Food Information Council.
However, Webster notes that the amount of these nutrients in grass-fed dairy is lower than the amount shown to have health benefits.
“Basically, milk from grass-fed cows might provide slightly more of some beneficial nutrients, but it’s unclear if these amounts make a significant impact on our health.”
Although milk and cheese come from the same source, the two dairy products aren’t nutritional twins. While studies consistently show that milk doesn’t promote inflammation, more research is needed to tease apart the question of cheese’s inflammatory potential.
One large study, for example, associated eating more cheese with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, and a smaller study linked cheese consumption to inflammatory markers in the blood.
Then again, other research shows that — due to having different levels of fat content — the anti-inflammatory activity of conjugated linoleic acid in your favorite Gouda or Swiss could have such potent effects as preventing clogged arteries and boosting weight loss.
We’re totally pro-pizza (and fondue… and grilled cheese… ) but moderation is key when it comes to cheese consumption. Even though the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends getting three servings of dairy per day, remember that a serving of cheese is just 1 ounce.
Congratulations, yogurt! You win the award for most anti-inflammatory dairy product.
According to a review of 52 studies, fermented foods like yogurt and kefir showed the highest anti-inflammatory activity of any dairy product. This is likely because of their high content of probiotics like lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacterial, which help create a flourishing gut microbiome.
Yogurt might be especially beneficial for those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). One study found that when people with IBD consumed a probiotic-rich yogurt once a day, they had significantly lower inflammation markers after 8 weeks.
Believe it or not, inflammation isn’t *all* bad. It’s actually the body’s natural process of healing itself from damage. The swelling and redness you see around a cut or wound, for example, are good signs that your body is taking steps toward recovery. This is known as acute inflammation.
Symptoms of acute inflammation:
- a sensation of heat
- temporary loss of function
On the other hand, when inflammation gets out of control, it may set you up for health problems. While you might not be able to see chronic, long-term inflammation inside your body, it can underlie numerous diseases (though it’s not always clear whether it’s a symptom or a cause of disease).
Symptoms of chronic inflammation:
- body aches and pains
- weight gain or weight loss
- frequent infections
- digestive problems
- rashes or sores
You can take multiple steps to tame inflammation through diet and lifestyle choices.
PSA: Before venturing into an anti-inflammatory diet, it’s important to consult a dietitian or medical doctor.
These diets may call for you to load up on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. (The Mediterranean and Nordic diets are great frameworks for getting started.)
That said, in the words of Eleanor Shellstrop from “The Good Place,” “pobody’s nerfect.” It’s okay to stray from an anti-inflammatory diet here and there; occasional indulgences won’t completely derail your health goals. (Because, hey, sometimes you literally need a cupcake.)
Don’t forget that lifestyle (not just food!) also affects inflammation. Proven ways to minimize your inflammatory load include exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and managing stress levels.
Foods that cause inflammation
- fried foods
- sugary drinks
- white bread
- pastries made with refined flour
- processed meats
- red meat
Dairy may provide several important nutrients, but you don’t actually have to eat anything from a cow or goat to be healthy.
Still, changing your thinking about dairy might require a bit of de-programming. The milk industry has been extremely effective at convincing us that not only does milk “do a body good,” but that we should all be drinking it a lot.
But this isn’t actually true. With a little strategic planning, it’s totally possible to find similar nutrients from other sources.
“Protein and healthy fats can be found in a variety of different foods, including meat, fish, eggs, soy-based foods, legumes, and whole grains,” says Webster.
“Calcium is found in leafy greens, soy-based foods, beans, peas and lentils. Vitamins B12 and D are in other animal-based foods, like meat and fish, as well as some fortified foods.”
Whether you’re lactose intolerant, vegan, or just aren’t a fan of milk, there’s no reason you can’t keep dairy off the menu and still get all the nutrients you need for a healthy life.