Is Dairy Bad for You? A Close Look at the Research

Is dairy bad for you

Dairy is an incredibly controversial topic. Many people claim that it is beneficial, offers important nutrients and can help build bones.

Others make the opposite claim, suggesting that dairy is damaging, is unnatural and isn’t necessary.

Which view is accurate? Is dairy bad for you or will it boost your health?

Not surprisingly, the answer isn’t straightforward. But, the information is out there. In this post, we’re digging into the pros and cons of dairy, along with what the research has to say.

The Advantages of Dairy

Dairy on a white table

Dairy is marketed extremely well, but this isn’t the only reason for its popularity.

Dairy is Versatile

Milk, cream, cheese and butter are used in many different ways on a daily basis. They’re a key component of the way that we eat and play a large role in many different recipes. For example, I regularly use Greek yogurt and certain types of cheese in my own diet. 

Dairy is so versatile and common that any dairy-free diet takes considerable planning. We even have plant-based versions of many dairy products. Soy milk, almond milk and vegan cheese are all examples.

However, plant-based versions lack some of the nutrients that dairy has, which means additional adjustments need to be made.

Source of Protein

Dairy is an easy source of protein, which offers many health benefits. For example, a cup of milk contains around 8 grams of protein, regardless of whether it is whole milk or low-fat (1,2).

This makes it an effective way to add protein into your diet. 

Probiotics

Probiotics aren’t limited to dairy. You’ll find them in other types of fermented foods and even in supplements. Despite this, dairy remains a particularly good way to get probiotics.

The main reason is that many yogurt brands are rich in probiotics. Yogurt is also one of the simplest ways to find probiotics in the grocery stores. That’s particularly useful for anyone who doesn’t want to make fermented foods themselves.

Additionally, many studies into the benefits of probiotics have focused on yogurt specifically. This could mean that some of the outcomes aren’t the same for other sources of probiotics. 

Health Benefits

Dairy consumption has also been linked to many different health benefits.

These advantages have often been found through observational research, so the cause and effect relationship hasn’t been established. Even so, it’s clear that regular consumption of dairy products can promote health in various ways.

  • Higher consumption of yogurt (all types), low-fat milk and low-fat dairy products has been linked to a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome (3).
  • A diet high in dairy products may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (4).
  • Yogurt consumption has been linked to the reduction in heart diseases, but the underlying mechanism hasn’t been determined (5). Other studies suggest that dairy may either reduce heart disease risk or have a neutral effect (6,7).
  • Fermented dairy may be particularly important for reducing heart disease risk (8).
  • Dairy consumption may decrease the risk of depression, although the result was only found for low-fat dairy, not full-fat (9)

May Promote Weight Loss

Despite common assumptions, dairy consumption may promote weight loss and help prevent obesity (10,11).

One study suggests that an increase in dairy consumption along with energy restriction may improve weight loss more than energy-restricted diets on their own (12).

Dairy tastes good, is very versatile and has been linked to many health benefits

The Disadvantages of Dairy

Yogurt parfait

There are many benefits to dairy, but the food group is controversial for a reason. This section looks at some of the more concerning aspects and what they may mean to you.

Dairy and Your Skin

Many people report that their skin clears up and looks better after they cut dairy out from their diet. The perspective has some scientific support too. Research suggests that some compounds in milk are similar to testosterone. They may stimulate the oil glands present in your skin, contributing to acne development (13).

Cancer Risk

There are some indications that dairy consumption may increase prostate cancer risk (14). This effect may be associated with hormones present in milk. Some of these can potentially increase the levels of an insulin-like growth factor (15). The phosphate levels in dairy might also be relevant (16).

However, cancer research is challenging, and the effect is not proven. It’s also not clear whether the outcome applies to some types of dairy or all of them, and whether it persists across all populations.

The outcome also depends on the type of cancer. For example, dairy may decrease the risk of colorectal cancer (17).

Many People are Lactose Intolerant

Lactose intolerance is a significant issue, affecting roughly two-thirds of the global population (18). People vary in how strongly they react, but many cannot consume dairy at all.

This is a key reason why people avoid dairy. Some people also feel that this is evidence that we shouldn’t be consuming dairy at all.

Dairy May Aggravate Some Conditions

Problems with dairy aren’t limited to lactose intolerance. Some people experience other issues with dairy or with specific dairy products.

For example, dairy will often make irritable bowel syndrome worse (19,20). Dairy is often thought to aggravate sinus problems, leading to excessive mucus production, but the relationship is heavily debated (21,22).

Evidence for Benefits is Limited

Diary is often associated with stronger bones and teeth, largely because of the calcium it contains. This remains one of the key marketing points. It’s also why so many kids drink milk.

Yet, the research isn’t as strong as you might expect.

  • Multiple studies have shown that dietary calcium intake does not significantly decrease fracture risk in seniors (23,24,25).
  • Some research shows that calcium can improve bone mineral density. However, this is only a marginal increase and is unlikely to have a significant impact on fracture risk (26).

The evidence is limited in other areas too.

  • We know relatively little about the impact of dairy for different types of diets. Dairy could easily have different outcomes for a low-fat diet versus a high-fat one (27).
  • There are also many different types of dairy, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, along with differences like organic, grass-fed and raw. These different areas may all vary in their health implications.
  • The associations between dairy and diabetes vary depending on the dairy type and the glycemic status of individuals (28). Similar variations exist for dairy products and weight loss (29).
  • Research frequently relies on observational studies and often produces contradictory results.

There are also cases where dairy appears to have negative impacts on health.

  • One study found significant benefits from low-fat dairy products (and whole yogurt), but found that cheese consumption increased the risk of metabolic syndrome (30).
  • Higher levels of milk intake have been associated with increased risk of death. However, the cause and effect relationship has not been determined. The authors of the study suggest that there may be some confounding factors (31).

The end result is that most of the apparent benefits of dairy aren’t certain. Dairy might offer significant health advantages, but more research is needed to prove those effects.

Some people cannot tolerate dairy and there is relatively little evidence for some of the proposed health benefits

Controversial Points

Dairy on a table

The debate about dairy isn’t entirely focused on health. There are other areas to consider too. These relate to our biological history and where milk comes from.

Is Eating Dairy ‘Natural’?

Many people claim that eating dairy simply isn’t natural.

That’s true to an extent. Milk is created to nourish a growing calf, much the same way that breastmilk supports human babies. In fact, humans are the only species to drink milk as adults.

Even so, humans do many things that other species don’t. This includes the way that we selectively breed plants, our agricultural approaches, the way we live our lives and countless other things.

You could also argue that eating eggs is an unnatural choice, or that cooking is.

The final answer is about perspective. If you consider dairy to be particularly unnatural, don’t eat it. If that aspect doesn’t concern you, go ahead and enjoy your dairy.

Are We Adapted to Dairy?

A related argument is the idea that we’re not meant to consume dairy as adults.

That might have been true at one point. But, there is significant evidence that our bodies have adapted to be able to process dairy. This process is related to the lactase gene and whether it is switched on in adulthood (32).

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have an active lactase gene as adults. This leads to lactose intolerance. The exact percentage strongly depends on location (33,34,35).

  • In some parts of the world, only around 10% of the population can drink milk.
  • In other locations, that number can be 90% or higher.
  • In fact, in countries with high milk consumption only around 5% of the population is lactose intolerant (36).

This pattern makes things more complex. It suggests that some people and populations are adapted to dairy, while others aren’t.

Is Dairy Necessary?

Dairy is a good source of nutrients, including calcium, along with various healthy facts.

But, it’s hardly the only source of those compounds. You can cut dairy out of your diet entirely without being nutrient deficient. Plenty of people do.

You just need to be sure that you’re getting the nutrients from other sources.

Dairy isn’t necessary for health, nor is it entirely natural. The decision ultimately comes down to personal preference, as there have been adaptations to support dairy consumption and many of our dietary choices could be considered not entirely natural

The Balance of Evidence

For people who can tolerate it, dairy appears to offer more benefits than risks. It’s also a food type that many people enjoy. After all, cheese, ice cream, cream and milk all involve dairy, as do countless recipes.

Despite this, some people are sensitive to dairy or find that it aggravates other conditions. The evidence for health benefits also isn’t as strong as it might appear.

As a result, eating dairy largely comes down to personal preference. If you can tolerate dairy without an issue, you may experience health benefits by including it in your diet. But, dairy isn’t essential for health and you could choose to exclude it.

There are advantages to including dairy and to excluding it, giving you the chance to choose whichever option suits you the best

Choosing the Best Dairy for Your Health

Butter on a table

The impacts of dairy strongly depend on what you’re consuming. The site Precision Nutrition offers a comprehensive guide on the implications of dairy, including the implications of different types of dairy.

Overall, you’re more likely to see benefits if you focus on more natural and less refined products. This includes:

  • Choosing full fat over low-fat wherever possible.
  • Looking for grass-fed and pastured dairy.
  • Focusing on cultured and aged cheeses, rather than processed cheese and cheese-like products.
  • Choosing yogurts that contain probiotics or making your own.
  • Focusing on products with few additives.

These differences are important, as they affect the potential health benefits.

For example, grass-fed cows tend to produce milk with a more desirable balance of fatty acids. This includes increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids and CLAs.

Raw Dairy

Raw dairy products (particularly raw milk) have become popular recently, amid concerns about the impacts of pasteurization. Raw milk may contain additional nutrients and offer more health benefits overall. Dr. Axe has a detailed article on the topic.

Nevertheless, there are some additional health risks with raw milk. These are highly debated. Some people feel the risks are significant, others think they are minimal.

There is an interesting article in The Guardian that offers a relatively balanced perspective on the topic. Healthline also talks about some of the possible dangers associated with raw milk.

Low-Fat versus Full Fat

If you’re going to choose low-fat dairy, make sure that it doesn’t have extra sugar. That sugar can promote inflammation and isn’t good for you anyway.

There will always be some sugar due to the lactose. But, many brands will add in more to ‘improve’ the flavor. For example, I’ve seen yogurt that has 26 grams of sugar for a 6-ounce serving. That’s far too high.

Full fat dairy is often preferred, especially if you’re on a low-carb diet. These products tend to taste better anyway and are often less processed.

Some of the benefits of dairy do come from the fats. You might see fewer health advantages if you focus on low-fat dairy.

Other Considerations

You should also be aware of the differences between various types of dairy. For example, cheese and cream are much higher in calories than other options. They also contain fewer carbs.

That balance makes them perfect for a keto diet, but poor choices for low-calorie diets.

If you’re going to include dairy, try to focus on the healthiest products, including full fat and grass-fed options

Final Thoughts

Selection of dairy products

At the end of the day, the choice is yours.

Some people tolerate dairy extremely well, have concerning symptoms and feel fine when they eat it. If this is you, dairy can be an appealing choice and offers more advantages than disadvantages. There are also many quality dairy products to choose from and plenty of healthy recipes.

Others struggle with dairy. This might be due to lactose intolerance or some other underlying issue. You might even find that can consume raw dairy or specific dairy products just fine, while others cause you issues.

Thankfully, cutting out dairy isn’t going to ruin your health either.

If you are considering a dairy-free approach, make sure you get the nutrients you need in other ways. You’ll also need to pay close attention to substitutions. For example, dairy is a particularly common source of probiotics and calcium, while plant-based milks won’t have the same compounds. 

You could also just experiment and see which sources of dairy work well for you. Perhaps you’re fine with whole milk products and not low-fat. Or, maybe you can consume ghee, even if other dairy options aren’t suitable. 

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