Jan 20

Are Dairy Products Healthy? Unpacking the myths and realities


Today is National Cheese Lovers Day.  I’m a cheese lover for sure.  Brie, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, feta, Parmesan; you name it, I probably love it, even if I don’t enjoy it all that often. So, today seemed like a good day to talk about dairy.


Dairy can be quite a contentious subject.  Amongst people who grew up on farms, and also amongst many who did not, it’s considered a wonderful source of nutrients.  However, in the wellness world it can get a bad press, and a lot of practitioners advocate giving up dairy.  But what does the evidence say?  Today I’m taking a look at some of the popular beliefs around dairy products and trying to distinguish the myth from the reality. Which of these statements do you think are true, and which are a load of old cheese?


  1. You can get all the calcium you need from non-dairy products

TRUE (but with difficulty)

soybean-gecdb28dc5_640It’s really important to say that almost any diet can be a nutritionally dense diet.  Whether you choose to eat dairy or whether you don’t, it’s fine.  A plant-based or vegan diet can absolutely be a healthy one in terms of all nutrients, including calcium.  I’m here to support your dietary choices and make sure they’re serving your needs, not only in terms of nutrition but in terms of fitting in with your life and giving your tastebuds a good time.  So, yes, you absolutely can get sufficient calcium on a dairy-free diet.


That doesn’t mean it’s easy.  It’s not just a matter of finding equivalent amounts of calcium in non-dairy products. It’s also a matter of their bioavailability – in other words, how available a nutrient is for your body after the food is digested and absorbed.  The bioavailability of calcium in non-dairy foods seems to be much lower than in dairy foods.  So, not only would you have to know which foods to eat, but you would have to eat them in larger quantities to get an equivalent amount of calcium.  You may be absolutely happy to do that, or you may not.  I personally like tahini and edamame, but I’m a bit odd that way.


2. Dairy products are inflammatory

FALSE (but a little bit true)

psoriasis-gea31dc4d0_640Chronic inflammation is a physiological process thought to underpin many of today’s chronic diseases.  Quite often, when practitioners are aiming to support healthy inflammatory processes, they will advise giving up dairy.  But does dairy really promote inflammation?


A systematic review in 2017 evaluated 52 clinical trials. It concluded that, not only do dairy products not have an inflammatory effect on most people, but certain products, in fact, have anti-inflammatory properties.  The non-inflammatory effect applies to both high and low-fat dairy products, whereas fermented dairy foods may have anti-inflammatory benefits. A 2019 review which considered inflammatory biomarkers agrees, and notes anti-inflammatory effects both in healthy individuals and those with metabolic diseases.  A 2021 review also supported these findings, and noted the possible anti-inflammatory effects of probiotic yoghurt in the short and medium term.  Generally speaking, dairy products have not been found to have an inflammatory effect.


However, if you have an allergy to cow’s milk, some evidence indicates that all dairy products may have a pro-inflammatory effect for you, even if you can tolerate yoghurt or cheese without an allergic reaction. In this case, it may be better to limit your intake or avoid them altogether if inflammation is a concern.


3. Dairy products are mucus-forming


Both anecdotally and in studies, people with colds report that dairy makes them produce more mucus, and avoiding dairy reduces mucus production.  Many people with asthma find their symptoms improve with a dairy-free diet.


Self-reported data is an interesting thing, because it’s notoriously unreliable, as you’re about to discover.


WARNING: This next bit isn’t particularly pleasant.  Please don’t read it if you dislike talk of body fluids.


There’s an old, but interesting study where 60 people with a cold were studied over 10 days.  There was no difference in the amount of mucus produced by those who ate dairy and those who did not (yes, someone had to weigh all those tissues). Those who believed that dairy was mucus-forming reported that they had more coughs and congestion than those without those beliefs, but in reality they produced the same levels of snot. In 2019, people with colds were asked to report their level of mucus production. Some were assigned to a dairy supplement, and others to a dairy-free equivalent.  Those on the dairy supplement reported significantly higher mucus production. But in this study, nobody weighed the tissues, so it’s not clear whether this was a real effect, or just a matter of perception.


Furthermormedicine-g046e68dae_640e, these studies relate to people with colds.  It doesn’t mean that they are transferrable to healthy people, or even to those with respiratory conditions such as asthma.  The alleged mucus-forming properties of dairy don’t fit the normal allergy pattern.  There’s a hypothesis that if certain conditions are met in the colon, dairy may increase mucus production for some individuals but not others.  One of these conditions is that significant inflammation must already exist, which may explain why this effect is more noted in people with asthma.


Of course, not all mucus is produced in the nose. We can produce mucus at the other end of the body too, and believe it or not, that’s also been studied.  Back in 1998 someone compared the rectal mucus of subjects allocated either a high-dairy diet (6 servings per day or more) with those given a low dairy diet (half a serving or less per day) over a 12-week period. They found no difference between the two groups.


So, in the general population, it’s probably not true that dairy forms mucus, but if you already have an inflammatory condition, you may indeed notice a mucus-forming effect.


4. Dairy products are full of antibiotics


pill-g815339296_640Every year, over 63,000 tons of antibiotics are given to livestock worldwide.  Importantly for humans, the residue of up to 70% these antibiotics still has active properties when it is released into the environment.


The antibiotics in milk mainly come from treating infections in cows.  However, they can also be added to animal feed.  If antibiotic residues enter the human diet in harmful amounts, they can contribute to the risk of diseases such as cancers, as well as allergic reactions and general antibiotic resistance.  Although developing countries are currently more at risk of this happening than developed ones, the possibility still exists in developed countries, and methods for detecting these residues aren’t particularly reliable.


Nevertheless, there are things consumers can do to reduce the risks of antibiotic residues.  Pasteurisation neutralises many of the antibiotic residues. Organic farms are not allowed to use antibiotics, and therefore organic milk will be antibiotic-free.  It may also contain a higher percentage of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk.  So, if you’re concerned about antibiotics, either from an ethical or a physiological perspective, organic dairy may be a good option.


If you’re taking antibiotics, remember to avoid dairy while you’re taking them, as the calcium can bind to the antibiotic, inhibiting it from entering the bloodstream and reducing its effectiveness.


5. Low-fat dairy products are healthier than full-fat ones

FALSE (but it depends how you define ‘healthy’)

skim-milk-foam-g1111a1bda_640Many diet books will tell you to eat low-fat dairy foods because they are lower in calories than their higher-fat counterparts. It’s true that a high-dairy diet may show a slight increase in fat mass over several weeks when compared with a low-dairy diet.  However, in the long term this may not be significant, and dairy may in fact help to limit weight gain in rats.  In humans no significant associations have been found between dairy consumption and weight gain.


Of course, weight isn’t a measure of health.  There are plenty of measures which are much more valid.  For example, an imbalance of blood glucose can be an early warning sign not only for chronic illnesses like insulin-resistant diabetes and some cardiovascular problems, but for mental health issues as well.  Low-fat dairy products often contain higher levels of sugar than their full-fat counterparts (something has to make the product palatable), so they may be less beneficial for long-term health if eaten regularly.  Additionally, it’s the fat in dairy products that carries the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) that underpin so many aspects of health.  Of course, you can find other sources of these, but dairy products are pretty convenient.


Full-fat dairy may not be suitable for you if you have issues with fat digestion, gall bladder or some forms of cardiovascular disease. In this case, low-fat dairy in small amounts may be an alternative.  If you are watching your sodium, hard cheeses and blue cheeses are best eaten in small amounts if you eat them at all. Fortunately, with these cheeses, a little goes a long way.


Other Considerations

cow-g866d58d5d_640Your concerns over dairy may have less to do with health and more to do with animal husbandry and environmentalism.  This isn’t my area of expertise, but if this is the case, you’ll want to choose any dairy products you include with care. It’s interesting to note that pasture-reared cattle may have less environmental impact than cattle reared indoors and fed dairy and soy, because the pasture absorbs the carbon dioxide produced by the cattle when methane breaks down and uses it for photosynthesis.


I like to buy goat’s cheese from my local market.  Goat tends to be more environmentally friendly than cow, local products have a lower carbon footprint, and I can trace the provenance of the product and the quality of life of the goats. But I realise that this is a massive privilege that’s not available to nearly enough people.


If you love the taste of dairy but you have an allergy or don’t want to eat dairy for ethical reasons, yeast flakes can give you the flavour, and are a great source of B-vitamins, particularly B12, which can be lacking in a vegan diet.  It won’t give you the texture of cheese, but you can’t have everything.


One Final Word

cheese-g649474f63_640When it comes to human health, there’s no such thing as an exact science.  High-quality studies and reviews are the best way to assess what happens at population level, but your own response to dairy foods will depend on the amount and type of dairy you consume, as well as your personal genetics, physiology and circumstances.  That’s why it’s important to remember that nutrition is never a ‘one size fits’ all (or even ‘most’).


Has this blog given you a new perspective on dairy?  Is there anything here that came as a surprise?  Let me know.

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