Some common questions I often get asked include “is dairy healthy?”, “can I eat a cheese pizza?” or “should I stop drinking milk?” The response to these questions is not just a straight yes-or-no. This article will explore some variables that will help you decide whether or not dairy consumption is right for you.
Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are a good source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, and are beneficial foe health and maintenance of your body. Despite these vital benefits, you may want to consider the following factors to determine the need for dairy consumption:
Ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other types of dairy products. Individuals who have lactose intolerance do not have the lactase enzyme necessary to digest lactose. They will usually have stomach cramps, bloating, loose stools, or increased phlegm or sinus problems. Avoiding dairy for a short period of time, like for 3-4 weeks can help to make this determination. If dairy leads to any of these symptoms, then avoid it or try different dairy products to see which ones cause less symptoms. Hard cheese and yogurt usually have lower levels of lactose.
Milk allergy. There is a small percentage of children under three years old who have a milk allergy which can cause symptoms such as stomach upset or hives. Children usually outgrow this by their teenage years.
Race and ethnicity. Lactose intolerance is a common condition that affects some racial and ethnic populations more than others, including African Americans, Hispanics, Native American and Asian Americans. There is a definitely a genetic predisposition for lactose intolerance among this population.
What does the research say?
The research on the health benefit and impact of dairy is mixed. Some studies warn against consuming too much dairy or none at all, while other research show some benefits from regular consumption of dairy.
A few studies found that consuming low-fat dairy, yogurt and cheese was associated with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (1). Other evidence suggests that increasing the consumption of milk products may be protective in those who have prediabetes (2). However, in various observational studies, a higher intake of dairy was associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and in increased cholesterol levels (3).
What are dairy alternatives?
If you decide to stop consuming dairy due to lactose intolerance or other reasons, here are a few alternatives which are generally considered to be good:
Plant-based milks: soy, rice, almond, hemp, cashew, and coconut are alternative options. However, it is important to keep in mind that some of these products contains artificial sweeteners, preservatives and thickeners. It is wise to choose products that has few of these ingredients and is labeled “unsweetened”, especially if you have prediabetes.
Plant-based yogurts which are made from coconut, almond, soy, cashew, and hemp. They also contain live active bacteria culture like other dairy products.
Lactose-free and lactose-reduced dairy products. These foods are found at many supermarkets and they are the same as regular dairy products, but they have the lactase enzyme added to them.
There is substantial evidence that dairy products may not be well-suited for everyone, but there are many options. If you are not lactose intolerant, adding a little dairy to your daily diet can help you obtain some of the vital nutrients your body needs. But it is advised that you choose grass-fed, organic, and pastured cheese and butter that are free of additives, and preferably sustainably produced.
If you are lactose intolerant, then you make sure you are consuming plenty of dairy-free alternatives that are loaded with calcium and vitamin D such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, dried figs and fortified plant milks.
Healthy eating for life begins with making the right food choices!
Tian S, Xu Q, Jiang R, Han T, Sun C, Na L. Dietary Protein Consumption and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. Nutrients. 2017;9(9):982. Published 2017 Sep 6. doi:10.3390/nu9090982
Adela Hruby, Jiantao Ma, Gail Rogers, James B Meigs, Paul F Jacques, Associations of Dairy Intake with Incident Prediabetes or Diabetes in Middle-Aged Adults Vary by Both Dairy Type and Glycemic Status, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 147, Issue 9, September 2017, Pages 1764–1775, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.117.253401
Lanou AJ. Should dairy be recommended as part of a healthy vegetarian diet? Counterpoint. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1638S-1642S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736P