When we were young, pediatricians and dietitians advised our parents to ensure we were getting enough dairy products in our diet. After all, healthy bones and teeth need calcium, and if you wanted to grow up to be “big and strong,” you needed lots of dairy.
In recent years, medical professionals have questioned the usefulness and health qualities of dairy products for the first time. How much is too much? Does it truly contribute to a healthy body? Are there alternatives that provide the same benefits? What about the high-fat content of many dairy products?
So, let’s dissect the question and see both sides of the debate.
Team 1: Dairy is Healthy and an Essential Part of Our Diet
Is dairy recommended?
While controversial, diary is still part of many countries’ food guides for healthy diets. Like most foods, moderate dairy consumption, approximately two to three servings a day for adults, is recommended.
The American Heart Association recommends choosing low-fat varieties of diary, including low-fat milk (1% or less) or low-fat cheese such as cottage cheese or reduced-fat cheeses (1).
What about the fat content?
Saturated fat is not good for our overall health, particularly our heart, and should be consumed in low amounts (2). Avoid substituting fats in dairy with coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil, which are particularly bad for cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart and blood vessel disease (3).
Standard dairy products, particularly those with low or reduced-fat, are relatively low in saturated fats. They’re absolutely part of a healthy diet.
What is milk’s golden ingredient?
Calcium is the number one reason why most people think they need to consume dairy products. For teenagers and adults aged 13 and up, 1,000-1,300 milligrams of calcium daily is recommended (4).
Many foods are now fortified with calcium (including breakfast cereal, tofu, and orange juice), which helps boost levels of this vital nutrient. Even so, it’s challenging to get your intake of calcium without dairy products.
Some products like spinach are high in natural calcium, but it is not very available (meaning it isn’t readily absorbed by our bodies, so the amount in the plant is far more than what your body can take advantage of when you eat it) (5).
Seeking out two to three servings of dairy products that are high in calcium and low in saturated fat each day will keep you sticking to the healthy eating guidelines, and maintaining a healthy body.
Besides calcium, what other nutrients does dairy have?
Just one serving of milk contains plenty of calcium, it’s true, but it also has magnesium (good for a steady heartbeat, and immune and bone health).
Phosphorous (aids in the formation of healthy bones and teeth), potassium (reduces blood pressure, and protects against stroke and osteoporosis). Protein (for muscle maintenance and “feeling full”), vitamin D (maintenance of healthy bones, teeth, and muscles).
Zinc (essential for immune function, cell division, and growth, and wound healing) (6). So, eating dairy products isn’t just about calcium; it’s about a blend of nutrients that keep your body healthy and running optimally.
What is a “fermented dairy product” and is it healthy?
Fermented dairy products also contain a variety of immunostimulatory and antitumor effects, and can aid digestion (7). Some examples of fermented dairy products that you have in your fridge include buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt.
Could dairy reduce diabetes risk?
Recently, medical studies have shown that diary can reduce the risk of diabetes (9). While these studies are primarily following patients later diagnosed with diabetes, they do suggest a possible correlation between dairy and antidiabetic benefits.
These results may be due to the immune system benefits previously discussed, or something entirely new that has yet to be discovered.
Team 2: Dairy Causes Health Problems and Isn’t Part of a Healthy Diet
What about lactose intolerance?
The first concern with milk is lactose intolerance, affecting anywhere from 15% to 95% of different populations. Stomach upset, diarrhea, and gas are significant problems that come with lactose intolerance, and these symptoms should be monitored closely if concerns arise (10).
What about the cancer risk?
A relatively new accusation from dairy product opponents is an elevated cancer risk, which has been found in two recent studies (11).
Researchers examined the risk association of prostate cancer with whole milk and dairy consumption and found there was an elevated risk (12). However, the shortcoming of these studies is that fat content and other dietary requirements are not controlled for, which leaves the question of whether it was dairy or something else in their diet that elevated prostate cancer risk.
Does dairy really mean strong bones and teeth?
Some studies have examined the risk of hip fracture and osteoporosis with dairy consumption. While the results are mixed, with some finding correlation between milk intake and fracture risk (13), and some did not (14), the current stand remains that bone health is improved by moderate dairy consumption.
Research suggests that the improvement in bone health may be due to Vitamin D in dairy products (15), in addition to calcium and other components.
In the End
The current opinion is that dairy products are healthy. Studies have shown some possible side-effects and questioned the usefulness of dairy, as opposed to other foods.
Indeed, while some works (like Joseph Keon’s Whitewash (16)) seek to prove that dairy is unhealthy, the research studies have yet to show that this is the case. All in all, dairy products provide an abundance of nutrients that have many health benefits.
However, they should be consumed in moderation. On the other hand, if non-dairy milk is more your speed, check out our article “What Is the Healthiest Milk” to learn about different types of milk and compare their health benefits.
Try to find sources of dairy that are 1–2% milk fat or lower, rather than high-fat cheeses and high-sugar and fat desserts like ice cream. After all, a yogurt a day could, in fact, keep the doctor away!