Today, limiting dairy intake is as common as the gluten-free fad was a couple years ago.  However, 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 health9.

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 provides nutrients such calcium, protein, potassium, and phosphorus.  Known for its rich-calcium content, dairy products also contain nutrients beneficial for bone health.  They provide the best bang for your buck due to being expensive, full of nutrients and having absorbable-calcium (30-40%).  Although calcium is found in fortified cereals, only about 28-36% of the calcium is absorbed by the body.  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, the amount of calcium that is actually absorbed by the body is less than the calcium content found on the nutrition label.  Even with this factored in, dairy products still remain on the top of the list as calcium sources.  Furthermore, although vegetables contain calcium, the calcium is not absorbed as readily as milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Figure 1: Comparison amount of absorbable-calcium in calcium-rich foods
List ranking foods from most calcium absorbed to least
                                                                    Rozenberg et al. 2016

Since it is a rich source of absorbable-calcium, eating dairy has positive impacts on bone health.  This is particularly true when you are young and bones are still building mass.  Proper calcium intake is critical during childhood and teenage years because bone growth peaks around age 20.

Poor intake of calcium can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, a decrease in bone mass, which can lead to fractures.  Absorbing calcium requires vitamin D to transport calcium and use it to build bones.  Since dairy products contain both vitamin D and calcium, they are beneficial for rebuilding and maintaining bone structure throughout life.

Cons of Dairy Consumption and Health Concerns

Dairy consumption is 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.

Furthermore, a research from 2005 from Pediatrics showed milk consumption had no impact on bone health8.  Instead of relying on calcium from dairy products to maintain bone health, the study revealed that increasing intake of vitamin D by itself is enough to protect bones.  Increasing vitamin D was able to reduce fracture risk of up to 26%.

Another concern of dairy is that not everyone can tolerate it.  In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly “65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy”.  Lactose intolerance is the inability to break down lactose, a sugar, found in milk which results in digestive issues including bloating, flatulence, or other symptoms.

As we age, it is common that we lose enzymatic functions decreasing our ability to breakdown certain foods. Specifically, the enzyme lactase is the main contributor to breaking down lactose found in dairy products. The concentration of the enzyme lactase is highest just after weaning and slowly decreases as we age.

USDA’s Take on Dairy 

Despite recent research addressing the pros and cons of dairy consumption, the USDA continues to recommend individuals to consume 3 cups of dairy in order to consume around of 1000 mg of calcium a day.  However, calcium can be obtained through other, non-dairy products.

Similar Story: The Truth About Meatles Diets According to Science

Replacing Dairy Products with Alternatives

Although dairy-free products are common in today’s food industry, dairy 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, which can be tricky.

Cutting dairy from your diet can also lead to nutrient deficiencies if not replaced with other common nutrient-rich foods.  For example, calcium intake that is actually absorbed is a concern when going dairy-free.  But if replaced by enough other calcium-rich foods, this danger can be avoided (see Figure 2.).  It is worth noting that Figure 2. lists calcium content and not the amount absorbed.

Figure 2. Calcium Content in Common Foods
Calcium Alternative Foods
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIH Publication, No. 14–7994 May 2014

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.  It provides many nutrients helping the body survive, but those nutrients can be obtained by other foods as well. Limiting dairy consumption may work for some people while others may need to eliminate it completely.  Lastly, making informed decisions based on your overall health needs is most important when chosing to  eat or avoid dairy in your diet.

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