If you’ve spent any amount of time in a grocery store recently, you may have noticed that the dairy aisle isn’t nearly as simple as it used to be. Sure, you’ll still find your typical selection of cow’s milk. But you’ll also find plant-based options like soy, almonds, rice, coconut, cashews, pecans, hemp, oats, and quinoa – to name a few. In fact, plant-based milk products are expected to make up 40% of overall milk sales by 2021.
While it seems many people are searching for ways to reduce their dairy intake, they may be missing out on its potential health benefits in the process. On one hand, you have the pro-dairy recommendations from major health organizations like the USDA. Their Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming 3 servings of dairy every day. This could include 8 ounces of milk or yogurt or 1 ½ ounces of cheese. On the other hand several popular diet plans – like Paleo, Whole 30, and Keto -all recommend limiting or excluding the dairy group entirely.
Is this another case of “what was once a healthy is in fact unhealthy”? Is dairy bad for you?
Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against dairy intake and whether there is any research to back it up. Then, you can make an informed decision about whether including dairy will help you reach your health and fitness goals.
Potential Benefits of Dairy Intake
Packed Nutrient Profile
In a world where highly-processed foods with no nutritional value are so widely available, dairy foods tend to have an impressive nutrition label. In fact, dairy is considered a good source of many essential nutrients.
A cup of cow’s milk provides almost 8 grams of protein, which exceeds the protein content of most non-dairy milk alternatives. It also packs a punch of important micronutrients. Studies show that increasing dairy consumption can significantly improve intakes of many under-consumed nutrients including calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
You’ve probably heard at some point that “drinking milk builds strong bones”, but is there any truth to this common advice?
A glass of milk contains 7 of the 8 nutrients deemed essential for bone maintenance. This includes protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin K. Additionally, studies have found that milk and dairy intake during childhood and adolescence are associated with increased bone formation and bone mineral content. This means that your bones are literally stronger and may be less prone to fractures.
Potential Negatives of Dairy Intake
If you have a hard time digesting dairy, you’re not alone. Lactose intolerance stems from a deficiency of the lactase enzyme, which is needed to digest the lactose in dairy products. An estimated 75% of the world’s population has some degree of lactose intolerance. With such a high prevalence of intolerance, people might jump to the conclusion that humans shouldn’t be consuming dairy in the first place. While that may be true for some people, it is not true for everybody . Most adults do lose the ability to digest lactose after childhood, but scientists have found that many people of northern European descent have a genetic adaptation called lactose persistence. If you don’t have lactose persistence, there are many dairy options in the form of cheese and yogurt that are naturally low in lactose. Therefore, you can still enjoy the nutritional benefits, and deliciousness, of dairy products if you make the right choices.
Saturated Fat Content
As with all animal-derived foods, dairy is a source of saturated fat. Saturated fat was once thought to increase LDL cholesterol, which is associated with an increased plaque buildup in blood vessels. However, studies have failed to demonstrate that saturated fat consumed in the form of dairy products is linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact, some studies have found that dairy intake has an inverse association with stroke risks. This may be due to the fact that dairy increases HDL in addition to LDL. It appears that saturated fat in dairy is less of a concern compared to other saturated fat sources and is likely outweighed by its variety of benefits.
Prostate Cancer Risk
Milk has been found to be protective against several types of cancer including colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, gastric cancer, and breast cancer. However, research suggests that high intake of dairy products may be associated with a slight (3-9%) increase in risk of prostate cancer in men due to the increase in IGF-1 following dairy consumption. Normally IGF-1 is responsible for regulating the growth of bones and tissues, but abnormal blood levels may indicate certain health conditions. If you’re concerned about your risk for prostate cancer, talk with your doctor about the best steps you can take to help reduce your risk.
Dairy and Your Health and Fitness Goals
Weighing both the pros and cons of milk, the research suggests that milk is an easy way to get many of the necessary nutrients that will help you reach your health and fitness goals. But remember to take into account your own dietary restrictions.
Dairy intake has many potential benefits for improving body composition. When combined with an overall reduction in calorie intake, dairy consumption has been shown to promote weight loss and decrease body fat. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that dairy consumption helps promote satiety, meaning you feel fuller for longer after eating or drinking dairy products.
Weight loss isn’t the only benefit you’ll reap from consuming dairy products. A study published by The Journal of Nutrition found that high dairy intake combined with a high protein diet and increased exercise helped study participants maintain lean body mass. There is also plenty of evidence to support the use of whey, a protein found in milk, as a post-workout supplement. Consuming whey after strength training helps increase fat loss in the abdominal area while at the same time increasing overall fat-free mass. This means that as you’re losing weight, you’ll maintain more muscle mass while reducing unwanted fat.
Which Dairy Product Is Best For You?
Low Fat vs. Whole Milk
Most major health organizations recommend choosing low-fat or skim milk due to their lower saturated fat content; however, newer research has refuted the validity of these claims. For example, in 2016 a study with over 3,000 adults found that consuming whole milk may protect against diabetes. Other studies have also shown that consuming full-fat dairy may not be associated with unwanted weight gain and obesity, as previously thought. If you choose to consume whole milk, be aware of the additional calories and practice paying attention to how your body tells you you’re full. This will help prevent overeating.
Conventional vs. Organic and Grass-fed Dairy
It turns out that feeding dairy cows their preferred diet of grass and hay can significantly improve the nutrient profile of the milk they produce. Milk from grass-fed cows has a higher omega-3 content when compared to both organic and conventionally raised grain-fed cows. Omega-3 intake can protect against inflammation, heart disease, and other metabolic conditions; thus, consuming grass-fed dairy may have added health benefits.
Dairy is often fermented in order to produce a variety of different products including kefir, yogurt, and certain types of cheese. When dairy foods are fermented, they become a source of probiotics and provide additional health benefits. Consumption of cultured dairy has been shown to improve cholesterol and immunity while protecting against allergies and certain types of cancer. Check the label on dairy products to see if they contain “live active cultures” for these added benefits.
Wrapping it Up
Multiple studies show that regular dairy consumption can provide many health benefits, especially for your body composition. Studies have found that dairy drinkers have improved body composition and bone health. Dairy intake has been associated with increased weight loss and reductions in body fat percentage while promoting maintenance of lean body mass and muscle. Dairy also decreases the risk for certain types of cancer and may be protective against heart disease. Grass-fed and fermented dairy products appear to have the most health benefits due to their omega-3 and probiotic content, respectively.
If you can’t or choose not to drink dairy milk, take some time to compare labels for dairy-alternatives. Choose products that are highest in protein and made without added sugars or artificial ingredients. Consider products that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, or be sure to include other good sources of these important nutrients in your meal plan. Remember that with any food group, it is important to consider how it fits into your healthy eating plan. Whether you decide to include or exclude dairy from your diet, it may be helpful to take a health assessment to understand your current status, and then consult with a health professional to come up with a plan that will help you achieve your health and fitness goals.
Stephanie Troxell is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach from Denver, Colorado. She specializes in theories of behavior change and has assisted thousands of clients from around the world in uncovering their own unique sources of internal motivation in order to promote lasting healthy habits.