Today, limiting dairy consumption is as common as the gluten-free fad was a couple years ago. However, people often make uninformed decisions regarding their diet when eliminating food groups impacting overall health.  Dairy is a food group abundant in today’s diet and can be found in milk, yogurt and cheese. It is also hidden in foods including 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 impact of eating dairy versus avoiding it on your health.

Nutritional and Health Benefits from Dairy Consumption

Dairy provides nutrients including 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; however, dairy products still remain on the top of the list as absorbable-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, dairy consumption has positive impacts on bone health. specifically during adolescence when bones are still developing to reach peak bone mass.  Proper calcium intake is critical during adolescence because bone growth peaks around age 20.

Inadequate 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 for bone maintenance.  Since dairy products contain Vitamin D, they are beneficial for rebuilding and maintaining bone structure throughout an individual’s lifespan.

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 ovarian.  For example, an 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 developing cancer, but a study from the Journal of The National Cancer Institute found the consumption of high-fat dairy products decreased survival rates among breast cancer patients.

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 impacts bone health by reducing fracture risk of up to 26%.

Another concern of dairy consumption is that not everyone can tolerate dairy; 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.

United States Department of Agriculture’s Take on Dairy Consumption

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 1000mg of calcium a day.  However, calcium can be obtained through other non-dairy products based on an individual’s needs.

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 eliminating dairy completely includes any food that has dairy-derived ingredients.

Eliminating dairy from your diet can 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 can be found in a variety of foods (see Figure 2.).  Due to the difference in calcium intake 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 consumption of 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 consuming or avoiding dairy in your diet.


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