Is Dairy Bad For You?
Nutrition is a complex and highly debated subject. With the massive amounts of competing advice available to us everywhere, it’s understandable why there’d be some confusion.
Being a cheese product, one of the most common debates we come across comes from dairy. Specifically: “Is dairy bad for you?”.
I wanted to share with you an honest and researched opinion on the pros and cons of eating dairy. The good, the bad, and the myths as it relates to some of our favourite products - milk, cheese and yogurt.
It’s Super-High In Protein
We’ve already written plenty of articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) on the benefits of protein, so I won’t belabour the point again. Suffice to say, protein is incredibly important, and adding more protein in your diet will almost certainly support your health goals - whatever they are.
The fact remains that besides meat and seafood, there are very few sources of lean, complete protein available. Dairy products offer a tasty alternative to meat since they include all essential amino acids, and can pack a huge amount of protein per calorie. This is especially valuable to vegetarians.
It Supports Your Bones
Calcium is an essential nutrient that’s best known for its role in building and supporting our bones. It also enables our muscles to contract, our heart to beat, and our blood to clot (necessary for healing wounds).
It’s recommended that adults over 19 years old ingest at least 1,000mg of calcium per day, and for those over 50 years old, 1,200mg.
It can be challenging to meet these demanding daily requirements without the use of supplements. Luckily, dairy happens to be the best natural source of calcium around. For example, a cup of milk has 300mg of calcium, and a single 30g slice of cheese has 250mg.
So, if you’re looking for a simple and tasty way to keep your bones thriving, dairy is your best friend.
Dairy Increases Cancer Risk
Research has found some links between the high saturated fat content and hormones in dairy products to two types of cancer: breast and prostate.
- A study of 3,000 women with and without breast cancer found that those who consumed the highest amount of american, cheddar, and cream cheeses had a 53% higher risk of breast cancer
- Research funded by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Cancer Research Fund, found that women who consumed 1/4 to 1/3 cup of cow’s milk per day had a 30% increased chance for breast cancer. One cup per day increased the risk by 50%, and 2-3 cups were associated with an 80% increased chance of breast cancer.
- One study found that regular consumption of dairy products may be linked to an increased risk in prostate cancer.
However, cancer is extraordinarily complex, and attempting to connect certain types of foods to certain types of cancer can get messy. For instance, in a separate study, dairy has also been linked to reducing risk of colorectal cancer.
It should be also said that the dairy products studied in these breast cancer and prostate cancer studies are high in fat and hormones. Removing fat from the equation, it becomes much less clear:
- One study of nearly 10,000 women found that those who consume low-fat diets have a 23 percent lower risk for breast cancer recurrence. They also have a 17 percent lower risk of dying from the disease.
- A Life After Cancer Epidemiology study found that, among women previously diagnosed with breast cancer, those consuming one or more servings of high-fat dairy products (e.g., cheese, ice cream, whole milk) daily had a 49% higher breast cancer mortality, compared with those consuming less than one-half serving daily.
In the end, if you have an increased risk of breast or prostate cancer, you should be mindful of your dairy consumption. To minimize these risks while eating dairy, you should choose dairy products that are low-fat and organic (i.e. hormone-free).
"Eating Cheese Is Unnatural!"
One common argument against dairy products in general is that it is unnatural to consume them. I can certainly see where that comes from.
Not only are humans the only species that consumes milk through adulthood, we are also the only ones to drink the milk of other animals.
Before the agricultural revolution, humans only drank our mother’s milk as infants. They didn’t consume dairy as adults — which is one of the reasons why dairy is excluded from a strict paleo diet.
So, from an evolutionary perspective, dairy isn’t necessary for optimal health.
That said, certain cultures have been consuming dairy regularly for thousands of years. Studies have documented how some cultures’ genes have changed to accommodate dairy products in their diet.
Perhaps this explains that while some 75% of humans are lactose-intolerant, this number is lower in places like North America, Europe, and Australia.
The fact that some people are genetically adapted to eating dairy is a convincing argument that it’s "natural" for some of us consume.
Further, just because something wasn't found in the wild by our foraging and hunting ancestors, should we disqualify it completely? Should we ignore new foods, medicines, and supplements because they didn't exist in the wild 10,000 years ago?
Dairy is an excellent source of calcium and protein. Assuming you don't have an allergy, it's hard to ignore the benefits of such a nutritious food simply because it hasn't been around forever.
Dairy Causes Digestive Issues
There is a significant portion (75%) of the population who have a hard time digesting dairy, citing: bloating, diarrhea, gas, and stomach cramps. In the vast majority of cases, this is related to lactose-intolerance.
Luckily, there are plenty of fermented dairy options like hard cheeses and yogurts which are very low in lactose and significantly more tolerable, and there are plenty of lactose-free dairy options available to use today.
Lactase pills can also work to alleviate symptoms.
Allergies To Dairy
More rare than lactose-intolerance are dairy allergies. Around 0.6% of people are suspected to have a dairy allergy, skewing significantly to children under 4 years old.
Common symptoms of an allergic reaction to whey include: trouble breathing, rashes, hives, and swelling of the lips, eyes, tongue, and throat.
If you think you might have a dairy allergy, you should choose plant-based alternatives instead.
Dairy Increases Your Risk Of Heart Disease
This myth is perpetuated by the idea that since most dairy products are high in saturated fat, it should therefore increase your risk of heart or cardiovascular disease.
There have been several studies, however, that have refuted this, and claim there is no link between the two. One study in Australia even found that those that consumed the most full-fat dairy had a 69% lower risk of heart disease.
There is no conclusive evidence that dairy does in fact increase your risk of heart disease. If you are still concerned about it however, choose low-fat dairy options.
Dairy Is Bad For Your Bones
Although I’m not quite sure where this idea began, I’ve seen many claims that dairy products are in fact bad for your bones, and increase your risk for bone-related diseases such as osteoporosis.
A recent study has shown that this claim is inconclusive at best.
- Dairy is an excellent and hard-to-replace source of protein and calcium.
- There is some evidence that ingesting a lot of high-fat dairy may increase risk of breast and prostate cancer, however it has also been shown to decrease risk of colorectal cancer. Those with an increased risk of breast or prostate cancer may be best to limit dairy intake, and choose lower-fat and organic (i.e. hormone free) options.
- Lactose-intolerant individuals should choose low/zero lactose options, and those with a dairy allergy should obviously avoid it altogether.
- There is no clear evidence that dairy will increase your risk of heart disease, or harm your bones.