Dairy is ubiquitous in diets around the world and is often considered a main food group. Ever curious if dairy is necessary? Or worse, is it negatively impacting your health? Those seeking to optimize their health, as well as those with food intolerances and allergies often wonder.
What is dairy?
Dairy refers to milk and milk products derived from mammals such as cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, camels, and humans. Common commercially-available dairy products include cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and products made from these, such as soft cheese, hard cheese, yogurt, kefir, and whey protein. Though sometimes confused, no, eggs are not considered dairy products. They are often housed in the dairy section of grocery stores however, which may contribute to the confusion.
Why do some avoid dairy?
Those with lactose intolerance, milk protein allergies, skin, sinus or digestive issues, and/or concerns about animal welfare, antibiotic residues and other contaminants, as well as milk production practices are the most common reasons for people seeking to reduce or avoid dairy. In some cases, low lactose dairy products or lactase-enzyme containing supplements, may significantly decrease symptoms enabling a tolerable level of dairy intake. For those with IgE-mediated milk-protein allergies and delayed allergies like in the case of Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE), avoidance is the best solution, though some may tolerate baked dairy. Concerns about dairy intake and its potential pro-inflammatory effects have been raised in the past, but recent research has dispelled the myth that dairy intake increases inflammatory markers for most people. This holds true for those that are healthy as well as those with metabolic disorders.
To understand if dairy is necessary for you, let’s first take a look at what dairy provides in the diet.
A serving of whole, 3.25% fat, cow’s milk is 1 cup or 8 ounces which provides a balance of macronutrients – 150 calories, 8g total fat, 5g saturated fat, 12g carbs, 0g added sugars, and 8g protein. One cup of 2% milk provides 125 calories, 5g total fat, 3g sat fat, 12g carbs, 0g added sugars, and 8g protein. Some dairy products contain high amounts of protein per serving such as Greek yogurt and cottage and ricotta cheese, while others like cream cheese, and half and half are lower. Dairy products are also an excellent source of calcium, a mineral critical for healthy bone development and maintenance, as well as heart and muscle function. Milk fermented by beneficial microbes turns into specific cheeses, yogurt or kefir that contain high levels of healthy bacteria, supporting gut health and microbiome diversity.
Therefore, dairy products are a rich source of fat, protein, calcium, and probiotics. If you can obtain these nutrients through other dietary sources, consistently in your diet, then dairy is unlikely to be necessary for your optimal health.
Unless you are following a very restricted diet, or have a disease that undermines your ability to absorb fat, it is rare to be deficient in fat in the developed world. An abundance of non-dairy food sources exist that can supply enough fat in your diet including meat, eggs, fatty fish, avocado, coconut, nuts, seeds, as well as concentrated sources of fat such as olive and other oils.
Dairy is a rich-source of protein, which may be a valuable addition to those looking to build and maintain muscle mass or lose weight. Similar to fat sources, many non-dairy food sources are available to help you meet your individual protein goals as recommended by the International Protein Board. Examples include meat, eggs, fish, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds, though calories, fat and nutrient content differs.
While dairy products are a convenient, low calorie and easy source of calcium, many other calcium-rich sources are readily-available such as canned sardines (with bones), canned salmon (with bones), tofu, cooked collard greens and white beans, as well as calcium-fortified foods like orange juice and plant milks. Enjoy these foods daily and you’re sure to meet the adult 1000+ mg daily goal to protect your bones and health as you age, and during weight loss.
According to Dr. Sonnenberg, microbiology and immunology professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, consuming fermented foods regularly, even more important than fiber, is key to diverse gut flora and optimizing your intestinal and immune health. Non-dairy sources of probiotics include cultured vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, fermented beverages like kombucha and water kefir, and non-dairy yogurts made from a variety of plant-based milks.
If you are avoiding dairy milk due to contaminant concerns such as pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, choosing organic options may enable you to continue to consume dairy while reducing your exposure risk.
If you avoid dairy for other reasons, it becomes more essential to follow a carefully planned and balanced diet to ensure you meet your dietary needs, especially calcium and fermented foods, to protect your long-term health and risk of disease.
I recommend you work with a registered dietitian to help you bridge any diet gaps you might have so you can feel your best, both now and in the future.