Are dairy products healthy or do they pose a health risk? Are they essential or should we stop consuming them? We set out the facts on an issue with a lot of confusion surrounding it.
What is the role of dairy?
Few foods generate such polarised opinions in the world of nutrition as dairy products.
While scientific societies and some professionals portray dairy products as almost essential to life, much of the general population is becoming increasingly suspicious of this food group.
Are they generally healthy? Are they essential? Do they increase your risk of cancer? Is skimmed milk better?
What are the main dairy products?
The most-consumed dairy products by the general population are milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream and butter.
They form a large part of the diet in our western society and are deeply rooted in our culture. In eastern societies, however, consumption is much lower.
Why? Probably on cultural grounds, but also for physiological reasons.
Milk and calcium
In order to continue discussing the upsides and downsides of milk and dairy products, we have to stop and analyse their nutritional quality.
A glass of milk contains:
- 276 mg of calcium (28% of the RDA)
- 24% of the RDA of vitamin D
- 26% of the RDA of vitamin B2
- 18% of the RDA of B12
It also contains a good quantity of potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A, selenium, Zinc and magnesium
For energy and macronutrients: contains 146 kcal, 8 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 13 grams of carbohydrates.
Having said that, the often heard argument with which milk is defended to the hilt (“you should drink milk because it has a lot of calcium and it is good for your bones”) does not stand up to scrutiny.
Other affirmations closer to the reality are:
- Milk is a nutritious food and contains a good quantity of calcium, as well as other micronutrients great for the bones.
- Milk is not even close to being the only food rich in calcium. There are few differences between the calcium in milk and the calcium in sardines, for example.
- Milk, therefore, is not an essential food, as we are often made to believe (messages sometimes spread from industry or from scientific societies influenced by them).
Are dairy products healthy?
This is the million dollar question.
As we anticipated earlier, it’s not easy to categorise healthy and unhealthy dairy products, because the scientific evidence is not unanimous.
Some of the reasons you’ll find below:
They have a high nutritional density
You only have to look at the previous section to realise that milk has a high nutritional density, with very interesting micronutrients.
Within these, fatty acids naturally present in milk fat stand out, due to their bioactivity, that is, they behave as bioactive compounds.
Nevertheless, the quality of these fatty acids depends a lot on how the animal has been reared and fed.
Effects on the bones
As I was saying, the protective effect of dairy on bones is real, and this is reflected in the scientific evidence.
But make no mistake, consuming dairy products is by no means the only method that will keep your bones strong, but it is one of many.
Sadly, when this message is launched (dairy = strong bones), parallel messages are rarely launched encouraging people to train their muscle strength, a more than proven bone-friendly intervention.
Evidence suggests that the frequent consumption of dairy:
- Improves bone mineral density
- Reduces occurence of osteoporosis.
- Lowers the risk of fractures, particularly in the adult population.
Baran et al., 1990.
Talking about whole milk and skimmed milk, several scientific battles have taken place in recent years.
Despite what common sense might tell us, whole milk is more effective in preventing obesity than skimmed milk, as we can see in this review of 16 articles (Kratz et al., 2013).
In terms of markers of metabolic health, there is conclusive data that whole milk is healthier.
What happens if you consume a lot of dairy?
If your lactose tolerance is good, it’s likely that nothing serious will happen.
In some contexts, high dairy consumption will even have positive effects.
One of these is in sports performance, with milk or some dairy preparations being ideal in terms of nutritional profile for post-training recovery, ideally in athletes with a high volume of training and double (or triple) sessions.
What about the claims of dairy products being bad for you?
If it’s difficult to conclusively claim that dairy products are “good”, it’s equally difficult to claim the opposite.
The principal arguments against dairy consumption reference their supposed relationship to cancer and, more frequently, their role in being “pro-inflammatory”.
Dairy and cancer
The link between dairy products and cancer is always made through the famous and well known stimulating effect on insulin and IGF-1.
As both are anabolic hormones, there is speculation about whether they might facilitate the growth of neoplastic cells. Leaving aside the reductionism of this argument, the scientific evidence is not clear on this point.
While some studies show a reduction in the risk of colon and rectal cancer (probably due to the content of fatty acids, probiotic bacteria and calcium), others show an increased risk of prostate cancer (Huncharek et al., 2008).
What dairy products should be avoided?
As stated, the only dairy products you should reduce or eliminate from your diet would be skimmed milk, as it has not been shown to be superior to whole milk in almost any study to date.
For the rest of the population, there aren’t too many reasons to justify avoiding dairy.
Benefits of going dairy-free
If you have an acne problem, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that going dairy-free could improve the condition.
There remains the question of the supposed “pro-inflammatory” effect of dairy products: to date there is no evidence of any such health effect.
That’s to say, we even have intervention studies showing dairy product consumption is not related to a greater number of pro-inflammatory parameters and acute phase reactants.
What happens here is that the general population relates symptoms such as bloating or dyspepsia, which often occur when there is poor tolerance to dairy products, to systemic inflammation.
So, dairy: yes or no?
As always, dairy products are great in some contexts and less so in others.
If they fit in with your diet, enjoy them and feel good, dairy is a nutritious and healthy option. That’s not an opinion, it reflects the scientific evidence.
On the other hand, if you are suspicious for any reason and don’t feel good about consuming them, if you feel bad or relate digestive or other symptoms to dairy product consumption, or if you have or have had prostate cancer, it may be a good idea to limit or even eliminate them.
In any case, this is neither an irreplaceable superfood, as we are often told, nor a pro-inflammatory and pro-cancerous white devil.
- Baran, D., Sorensen, A., Grimes, J., Lew, R., Karellas, A., Johnson, B., & Roche, J. (1990). Dietary modification with dairy products for preventing vertebral bone loss in premenopausal women: A three-year prospective study. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
- Hebeisen, D. F., Hoeflin, F., Reusch, H. P., Junker, E., & Lauterburg, B. H. (1993). Increased concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in milk and platelet rich plasma of grass-fed cows. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research.
- Huncharek, M., Muscat, J., & Kupelnick, B. (2008). Dairy products, dietary calcium and vitamin D intake as risk factors for prostate cancer: A meta-analysis of 26,769 cases from 45 observational studies. Nutrition and Cancer.
- Kratz, M., Baars, T., & Guyenet, S. (2013). The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. In European Journal of Nutrition.
- Mozaffarian, D., Cao, H., King, I. B., Lemaitre, R. N., Song, X., Siscovick, D. S., & Hotamisligil, G. S. (2010). Trans-palmitoleic acid, metabolic risk factors, and new-onset diabetes in U.S. adults: A cohort study. Annals of Internal Medicine.
- All you need to know about milk to understand its benefits, myths and possible contraindications, here .
- If you are lactose intolerant, this post is interesting for you.
- The benefits of milk for your health are widely known, however, a lactose-free diet… continue reading.