Is dairy good for your health, or bad?

While people seem to agree that fruits and vegetables are healthier choices, other food classes, such as dairy, spark further debate and seem to have contradictory advice.

Choose My Plate guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that adults will eat 3 servings of dairy products a day. Children can eat around 2 or 2.5 servings a day, depending on age.

Examples of traditional dairy servings include:

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 cup of yogurt
  • 1 ounce of hard cheese, such as cheddar or Monterey Jack
  • half a cup of cottage cheese

The USDA has urged people to eat milk daily for decades. Some health advocates, however, agree that people should not eat dairy to be healthy. Some think that even if people consume too much of it, the meat can be bad for health.

These mixed signals can be humiliating. We’ll break down what the evidence says in this post.

Milk and bone health

Dairy contains nutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D, and protein.
Dairy contains nutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D, and protein.

Calcium is an important mineral. It helps create strong bones and is needed for other functions such as muscle contraction and transmission of the nerves.

Dairy products are a decent source of calcium, and this is one of the key reasons that the USDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend the dairy intake to citizens.

Dairy also provides other major bone health nutrients, such as phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D and protein.

One individual may be at risk of osteoporosis without enough calcium. This condition causes the bones to weaken, leaving them vulnerable to rupture. The National Foundation for Osteoporosis states people need sufficient calcium and vitamin D to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis.

Although though dairy products can contain more calcium than many other foods, there appears to be contradictory evidence to indicate that eating dairy may prevent bone fractures.

For example, one systematic review and meta– indicates that in certain studies, with increased dairy consumption, the risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture decreases. And in all the research included in the study this was not the case.

It is also important to understand that many other factors, including exercise, smoking status, alcohol use, and changes in hormone levels during aging, can influence bone health.

A long-term Swedish study involving more than 61,000 women and 45,000 men found a possible correlation between higher intake of milk and higher mortality and higher bone fracture incidence.

The association does not, however, imply a relationship of “cause and effect.” For example, women who had hip fractures and a higher intake of milk could have drank more milk because they were at risk of hip fractures.

The authors of the study warn that other lifestyle factors and health problems are not taken into account in the findings.

Another long-term analysis of 94,980 Japanese people found the opposite correlation, with a lower mortality risk linked to increased milk use.

Overall, most dairy evidence indicates milk is beneficial to bone health and cardiovascular health.

One thing that is obvious is that calcium is essential for bone health, and the other nutrients that milk offers.

Those who can not or do not want to consume milk should consume other calcium-rich foods or speak to a doctor about whether they need a calcium supplement.

Dairy, saturated fat, and heart health

Saturated fats are present in full-fat dairy products such as whole milk, butter and cream, and to a lesser degree in low-fat dairy products such as 1% milk. There are also saturated fats present in poultry, some processed foods, coconut oil, and palm oil.

The American Heart Association (AHA) claims saturated fats can contribute to heart disease and high cholesterol. As a result, many whole fat dairy foods do not feature in the guidelines for heart healthy diets.

The AHA suggests that people use fat-free or low-fat dairy foods to get calcium without the saturated fat. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also suggests selecting low-fat or fat-free dairy products as part of a balanced diet for people.

Recent research, however, shows that the link between saturated fat and heart disease isn’t as clear as people once believed. One study notes that the role of saturated fat in heart disease has been underestimated by some. Again, several other factors in the lifestyle are significant when determining risk of heart disease.

A team of cardiologists wrote an article explaining that consuming saturated fat foods doesn’t clog the arteries, as people once believed. We argue that the “fat free” trend has induced higher carbohydrate food intakes, including sugars. This can explain why heart disease rates have gone up.

Another article notes that the claim that consuming saturated fat is related to heart disease is not confirmed by multiple studies and reviews. The article also states that in some cases the risk of obesity-related diabetes may be decreased by saturated fat.

While there is no longer a direct connection between full-fat dairy and heart disease, there are other things a person can do to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle including:

  • eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • exercising regularly
  • not smoking
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • getting adequate amounts of sleep
  • controlling blood sugar levels, if they have diabetes

People may also determine how much they need blood pressure checks, cholesterol and glucose levels, and other interventions that may predict the risk of heart disease with a health professional.

Diabetes and dairy

Mediterranean diet
A person can try the Mediterranean diet to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes is a widespread health problem, with more than 100 million people affected by diabetes and prediabetes in the US. Although several factors affect whether a person develops diabetes or not, diet is one important aspect.

The American Diabetes Association recommends a Mediterranean diet to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and to lower levels of A1C, which is an significant measure of regulation of blood sugar.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the ingestion of balanced olive oil and fish oils, as well as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and small quantities of dairy.

A meta-analysis found that dairy consumption, particularly yogurt, may have a protective effect against type 2 diabetes. Another research showed that people who ate the highest fat dairy products had a 23 percent lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes relative to those who ate the lowest fat dairy food.

For many people with type 2 diabetes, the dairy can fit into a healthy diet. Considering that each person is special, it is best to talk to a doctor or nutritionist about dietary guidelines for good blood glucose control and diabetes management.

Nutrients in milk

Milk provides a range of beneficial nutrients for the wellbeing. It contains a complete protein which means it contains all the necessary amino acids for safety. This also contains other vitamins and minerals which provide limited amounts of other foods.

One cup of fortified whole milk contains:

  • Calories: 149
  • Protein: 7.69 grams (g)
  • Carbohydrate: 11.7 g
  • Fat: 7.93 g
  • Calcium: 276 milligrams (mg)
  • Vitamin D: 3.7 international units (IU)
  • Vitamin B-12: 1.1 mcg
  • Vitamin A: 112 IU
  • Magnesium: 24.4 mg
  • Potassium: 322 mg
  • Folate: 12.2 IU
  • Phosphorus: 205 mg

Many milk farmers use vitamins A and D to fortify their products. A person will see if the label on ingredients fortifies milk. The label lists the added vitamins as additives, such as vitamin A palmitate and vitamin D-3.

Milk is a nutrient-rich drink that provides many nutrients that are missing from other beverages, such as sports drinks, sodas, and other nondairy milk substitutes.

Lactose intolerance

The dairy products contain a lactose called sugar. A person’s small intestine needs to generate an enzyme called lactase to digest lactose.

A person will not be able to digest dairy products which contain lactose without enough lactase. This leads to lactose intolerance symptoms which may include:

Lactose is found in breast milk and in humans. Most babies have no problems digesting it. Lactose intolerance is primarily a rare condition in infancy.

Many people, however, become lactose intolerant as their bodies slow their lactase development. Approximately 65 percent of the world’s population has a “reduced capacity to absorb lactose after infancy.” Many fermented dairy foods, such as yogurt and some hard cheeses, produce lower lactose levels than a glass of milk. These forms of fermented products may be good choices for certain lactose sensitive people.

Others find that almost every volume of milk is causing symptoms. People who are unable to digest dairy that wish to eat lactose-reduced dairy milk or alternatives to fortified soy milk. Certain alternatives to the nondairy milk do not have comparable nutrients.

Summary

Many credible evidence indicates milk can be an essential nutrient-rich option for a balanced diet. It is up to each person however to determine whether to consume it or not.

People who do not or can not eat dairy should receive calcium from other sources, such as fortified nondairy soy milk, leafy green vegetables, and other foods rich in calcium.

People may need to address their dietary needs with a health care provider based on their health history and lifestyle.

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