Should you be consuming dairy?

One of the five core food groups in Australia (and many other developed countries around the world) is dairy. This group includes milk, yogurt and cheese and all of the alternative to these foods as well (products made from soy, coconut, nuts etc).

Even though this group of foods has been extensively researched and is widely recommended by health professionals, there still seems to be a lot of confusion and misconception about whether or not we should be eating them! For the most part, the feedback that we get from clients is that they heard from their neighbour/family member/well meaning friend that they should cut out dairy (sometimes for no particular reason), but occasionally this information is also coming from other health professionals, practitioners or online health gurus.

So what’s the deal? Should we be eating dairy? And why are people saying that we shouldn’t? Let’s dig a little deeper…

Lactose Intolerance and Cow’s Milk Allergy

As is often the case in nutrition, there are some legitimate health conditions where the appropriate advice is to cut out or modify your intake of a certain food group. In relation to dairy, having lactose intolerance or an allergy to cow’s milk are two of those scenarios.

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is the impaired ability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Lactose is normally broken down by lactase; an enzyme which is normally produced by cells in the small intestine.

There are two types of lactose intolerance – congenital lactose intolerance, which occurs in infants, and lactose intolerance which occurs in adults (nonpersistent lactose intolerance). Most adults who suffer from lactose intolerance still have some degree of enzyme production and can tolerate varying degrees of dairy foods. Many cannot tolerate milk (high lactose product) but can tolerate yoghurt and cheese just fine. Both of these go through a fermentation process which can reduce the lactose content and therefore make them easier to digest.

Cow’s Milk Allergy

Cow’s milk and other dairy products are a common cause of allergy in babies and young children. Most infants outgrow their allergy by the age of 2 but there is a small percentage of people who do not. Severe allergic reaction to cow’s milk can be life threatening and should always be treated as a medical emergency with adrenaline.

Dairy and Inflammation

One of the most common concerns about consuming dairy foods is that they cause inflammation in the body. Chronic (or long term) inflammation has been linked to increased risk of metabolic diseases such as insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

The association between dairy and inflammation has been widely researched over the past decade. A review of the literature, released in May 2019, has concluded that dairy food DOES NOT cause inflammation in healthy adults, overweight or obese adults, or adults with type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome.

In fact, the majority of studies demonstrated a slight anti-inflammatory effect with the consumption of dairy foods.

What’s so good about dairy?

There is a huge range of dairy products available on the market today. These include a variety of milks (ranging in protein and fat content) as well as fermented milk products such as kefir, yoghurt and doogh. Dairy also includes things like cheese, butter, cream and ice cream.

Obviously, different products will vary in the amount of nutrition they provide us (milk offers more nutrition that say, ice cream!) but in general, these foods contribute significantly to helping us meet our daily requirements for calcium, magnesium, selenium, riboflavin and vitamins B5 and B12.

Some dairy foods (milk, yoghurt and some cheese) also contain a really great vegetarian source of protein, which is crucial in the diet for the building or maintenance of muscle mass, as well as helping us to feel full and satisfied from our food.

Dairy and Sport

Dairy food (milk in particular) has been established as an excellent food for use in training, general exercise and sport. This is due to it’s high protein content (for muscle building, repair and maintenance), it’s good quality carbohydrate content (for fuelling before activity and refuelling after activity) as well as hydration.

What to look out for if you go dairy free

If you do choose to eliminate dairy or consume dairy alternatives in your diet, there are a few things to look out for…

  • Ensure any milk you are supplementing with is calcium fortified (at least 100mg per 100mL)
  • Try to choose a milk that contains a good source of plant based protein (like soy or rice milk)
  • If you remove dairy food from your diet, make sure you are replacing it with alternative products so that you replace (at least some of) the energy and nutrients lost
  • Consult with an Accredited Practising Dietitian to ensure that your diet remains adequate and nutritious, and that you are meeting all of your requirements for your age and activity level

Ulvin, S, Holven, K, Gil, A and Rangel-Huerta, O, 2019, Milk and Dairy Product Consumption and Inflammatory Biomarkers: An Updated Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 10, Issue suppl_2, Pages S239–S250