Many people want to know the truth about dairy and the dairy-free craze. These days, limiting dairy intake is as common as the gluten-free fad was a couple years ago. Unfortunately, people often make uninformed decisions regarding their diet when eliminating whole food groups.
Dairy is a food group abundant in today’s diet. It includes milk, yogurt and cheese and products that contain them. Foods that contain dairy that you might not think of include canned tuna fish, bakery goods, artificial sweeteners, potato chips, and more.
However, more individuals choose to opt out of dairy completely for personal beliefs, digestive reasons, or social/popular trends. Researchers are finding dairy consumption being associated with increased cancer risks and other harmful effects on health.
This article discusses the nutritional pros and cons of dairy, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) take on dairy consumption, and the impacts of eating dairy versus avoiding it on your health.
Nutritional and Health Benefits of Dairy
Dairy products are famous for their rich calcium content. And they really are rich in calcium, particularly absorbable-calcium (30-40%).
This is important because calcium can only protect your bones if you can actually absorb it. Other good sources of calcium, such as fortified cereals, have poorer calcium absorption rates — only about 28-36% for fortified grains, for example. (Note: Fortification is the process of adding nutrients not originally present; however, added nutrients are not as easily absorbed by the body.)
Figure 1. shows the difference of calcium content and calcium absorption in foods. In other words, it highlights the amount of calcium that is actually absorbed by the body vs. the calcium content listed on the nutrition label.
Figure 1: Comparison amount of absorbable-calcium in calcium-rich foods
Since it is a rich source of absorbable-calcium, eating dairy is often toted as a way to improve bone health, particularly for young people whose bones are still building mass. Proper calcium intake is, indeed, critical during childhood and teenage years because bone growth peaks around age 20.
Dairy is also well-known for being rich in vitamin D. Vitamin D is incredibly important for your health and is involved regulating your immune function, mood, and heart health.
The Truth About Dairy Consumption and Health Concerns
One of the most prevalent concerns with consuming dairy is that it can cause poor digestive health. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly “65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy”, that is to say: lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance causes unpleasant, and sometimes severe, digestive issues including bloating, flatulence, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
Even among those who do not develop lactose intolerance in childhood, many people end up developing some degree of lactose intolerance as they age. This is because aging is associated with a general decline in how digestive enzymes function, including lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose.
The biggest concern surrounding dairy consumption, though, is the increased risk of cancer. Dairy consumption is undoubtably linked to increased cancer risks — particularly cancers of the reproductive system such as breast, prostate, and ovary. For example, the Iowa Women’s Health study concluded that women who drank more than one glass of milk per day were at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than those that drank less than one glass per day.
Not only is it linked to getting cancer in the first place, but a study from the Journal of The National Cancer Institute found the eating high-fat dairy products decreased survival rates in those already diagnosed.
USDA’s Take on Dairy
Despite lots of research addressing the cons of dairy consumption, the USDA continues to recommend individuals to consume 3 cups of dairy solely in order to consume around of 1000 mg of calcium a day. However, calcium can be obtained through other, non-dairy products and vitamin D supplements can provide enough of this critical vitamin without the risks presented by dairy.
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Avoiding Dairy Products: The Practical Difficulties
Although dairy-free products are common in today’s food industry, making it easy to avoid obvious dairy-products, milk and milk components can sneak into many food products not normally considered dairy, such as potato chips or canned tuna fish. Dairy ingredients including milk proteins or hydrolyzed proteins are used to process foods for preservation, texture, or taste. So, cutting dairy completely includes cutting any food that has dairy-derived ingredients, and this can be tricky.
Cutting dairy from your diet can also lead to nutrient deficiencies if not replaced with other common nutrient-rich foods (see Figure 2.) and/or supplements, as necessary.
Figure 2. Calcium Content in Common Foods
Final Thoughts: To Eat or Avoid Dairy?
At the end of the day, research supports both eating dairy as well as dairy-free diets as beneficial to one’s health. Dairy provides many nutrients helping the body survive, but those nutrients can be obtained by other foods as well, without the associated cancer risk. Limiting dairy consumption is, in general, a good idea for protecting your overall health. Just make sure to include lots of other calcium-rich foods and find a steady source of vitamin D (be it supplements or the sun) to keep your bones healthy on a dairy-free diet.