Dairy, or milk products like yogurt, cheese, and butter are produced from animals such as cows, goats, sheep, and camels. Unique to only a few foods, dairy supplies all essential macronutrients and various vitamins and minerals in its natural, unprocessed form.
Within recent years, though, skepticism about the health effects and farming practices of dairy has emerged. And with many people lactose intolerant, meaning they cannot digest the natural sugar in dairy properly, they question the agricultural practices of dairy farming and how it affects their own health.
Knowing this, is dairy bad for you or good for you? The resounding, most likely unpopular answer is it depends. Just like nutrition as a whole is not "one size fits all," dairy consumption is not either.
But good news, this article will elucidate the truth about dairy facts! We talk about the benefits of dairy, the disadvantages of dairy products, and everything in between.
What Is the Truth About Dairy?
The old Food Pyramid recommends 2 to 3 servings of dairy per day for the average person eating 2,000 calories daily. While this is generalized, it used to hold some merit, but maybe not so much anymore.
The idyllic imagery of retrieving cow's milk has also changed. Once upon a time cows would calmly graze grass while the farmer milks another to turn into cheese and ice cream. Now, large scale "farms" have replaced small family farms with mechanistic manual and artificial dairy production.
Furthermore, the nutritional content also evolved as giant farms turn to hormones, antibiotics, and/or an unnatural diet. While this allows farmers to supply much more dairy, it may be hindering health (which will be discussed shortly).
First, we take an objective look at some of dairy’s benefits and who might best benefit from dairy intake.
Benefits of Consuming Dairy
For people who can tolerate dairy, including A1 or A2 milk, it provides valuable nutrients and benefits such as:
• Calcium: A mineral vital for building and maintaining teeth and bones. In America, dairy is the most prominent source of calcium.
• Vitamin D: A vitamin that helps maintain proper calcium and phosphorus levels. Sufficient levels are associated with reduced risk of many chronic diseases.
• Protein: One of the three macronutrients that helps grow, develop, and repair nearly all cells in the body. Protein is also important for weight loss in many ways, including regulating hunger and increasing energy expenditure.
• Potassium: A mineral and electrolyte that helps create nerve impulses and muscle contractions. It also supports heart health and may improve blood pressure.
Moreover, scientific evidence regarding dairy suggests milk and dairy products can help meet nutrient recommendations. It may also help prevent an array of chronic diseases.
Most notable, though, children appear to benefit most from consuming milk products. Dairy contains many nutrients required for building strong bones in childhood and maintaining bone health in adulthood. In fact, most research still suggests that when tolerated well, dairy is helpful and even preventative for children.
Disadvantages of Dairy Products
Although dairy can provide important nutrients, some research demonstrates it may contribute to increased risk of a number of health conditions. These include:
• Heart disease
• Type 2 diabetes
• Alzheimer’s disease
• Certains forms of cancer such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers
The research explains that dairy products, especially full-fat dairy, are the number one source of saturated fat in America. Although it is important to take this with a grain of salt, cheese and butter do tend to be household favorites.
If one can tolerate dairy, reducing portion sizes and choosing quality products may be as beneficial as avoiding it at all costs.
Are Non-Dairy Alternatives Better?
As continuous research exposed poor and unhealthy dairy farming practices, non-dairy alternatives emerged to the rescue. While soy substitutions remain most popular, other calcium-fortified alternatives like rice, almond, cashew, oat, and hemp are among other favorites.
Key Nutritional Differences
Soy-based dairy alternatives prevail because their nutritional profile most similarly resembles real dairy products. Substitutions mostly lack the protein content of dairy or soy milk, and some contain as much or more sugar than soda. However, they do tend to be lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than whole dairy milk.
Nonetheless, their nutrient profile really depends on a variety of factors such as processing, fortification of vitamins and minerals, and additional ingredients used. Unsweetened, non-flavored versions of all these alternatives provide most nutrition with the least amount of negative health risk.
Undoubtedly, dairy and plant-based derivatives are different products with varying nutrient profiles. For someone who is lactose intolerant, substituting for dairy is prudent. For someone with lactose tolerance consuming unprocessed forms of dairy in moderation can be healthy and potentially protective.
The Bottom Line
Dairy farming practices expanded to serve more people than ever before. However, to achieve this massive distribution, mega-farms may be injecting hormones and antibiotics into animals. And, unfortunately, these actions may trickle into human health.
Nonetheless, most research reveals connections between dairy products and poor health outcomes, not causations. Just like most controversial foods and food groups, dairy consumed in moderation is most likely healthy for people who can fully digest it.
Still, to further reduce negative health implications, consider opting for minimally-processed, grass-fed, and organic versions. And if a child is tolerant of dairy, serve them real dairy over plant alternatives due to varying, pertinent nutrients.
Ultimately, dairy need not be the ultimate enemy, especially when including in a balanced diet. But, high-quality versions from farms that raise their animals humanely and healthfully will enhance health best.
Health Concerns About Dairy. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. http://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/nutrition-information/health-concerns-about-dairy.
Nutrients and health benefits. ChooseMyPlate. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/dairy/dairy-nutrients-health.
Thorning TK, Raben A, Tholstrup T, Soedamah-Muthu SS, Givens I, Astrup A. Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Food & Nutrition Research. 2016;60(1):32527. doi:10.3402/fnr.v60.32527