There has been much controversy in the past decades surrounding the health impacts of consuming dairy as an adult including the potential for larger quantities and consistent intakes being associated with cardiovascular disease, weight gain, inflammation, osteoporosis, and cancer. However, is there merit for these beliefs, and where do the cards fall in favor or against the role of dairy in one’s diet?
Dairy can arise in many different forms from liquid milk with varying fat contents, yogurt, butter, various hard, soft, and processed cheeses as well as sweetened dairy products. In terms of milk, it contains high amounts of calcium, vitamin D & A, thiamine, zinc, potassium, phosphate, protein, and riboflavin.
It is common medical knowledge that bone consists of collagen and other proteins, and a matrix called hydroxyapatite, containing mineral salts of bonded calcium and phosphate. Vitamin D fortified in milk, helps mineralize bones and precipitate calcium into bone tissue. Considering the nutrient composition of milk, cheese, and yogurt, it would be logical to deduce that these products may contribute to a healthy skeleton. Though, there is conflicting evidence suggesting that dairy either does not prevent fractures or osteoporosis, and conversely, that it may help mineralize bones. However, nutrition and health outcomes are more nuanced with confounders in population, research methods, diet, and indeed dairy composition itself.
Though it is true that an adequate intake of these minerals help maintain bone and optimize bone density; other tips for healthy bones include:
- Fish and other seafood, contain vitamin D and canned fish retain the bones which are rich in calcium.
- Beans kale, spinach, broccoli, tofu and soy, nuts and alternative milks contain calcium.
- Adequate protein intake from preferably plant and lean animal-based sources.
- Vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables help manufacture collagen, an important proteinaceous component of bone.
- Include vitamin K, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium rich sources found in nuts, fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains.
- Regular weight or load-bearing exercises.
Inflammation is a natural and vital homeostatic mechanism used for repair and immune cell recruitment, but is also associated with numerous chronic diseases such as arthritis and joint pain. Dairy intake seems to reduce inflammation and is associated with a decline in osteoarthritic progression in women. Dairy may also help present gout flare ups. Gout is caused by an accumulation of uric acid crystals in joint spaces, which is seen to be lowered in persons who consume milk and yogurt.
Consider choosing low fat dairy options, as whole fat alternatives have more calories, which may precipitate weight gain and increase compressive stress on inflamed joints.
Other ways to manage joint pain include:
- Following an anti-inflammatory diet low in processed foods and refined carbs, including foods containing antioxidants, calcium and vitamin D, healthy fats, fiber, fruits and vegetables.
- Gentle exercise and losing excess weight.
- Include a supplement such as JointFuel360 which contains some of the building blocks of joint tissue such as collagen and hyaluronic acid. In addition to antioxidant extracts that counter inflammation (resveratrol, Boswellia serrata and turmeric).
Evidence suggests that diets high in saturated fats may be an independent dietary factor in the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerotic plaque formation, as it is thought to contribute to higher levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. However, there is mounting evidence that saturated fat in dairy, may have a neutral effect on heart health outcomes and may even lower blood pressure. Long-term, randomized clinical trials are needed for firm conclusions to be made.
Recent research contends that the complex matrix comprising dairy products, (including proteins, numerous different classes of fatty acids and vitamins and minerals), may play synergistic or even opposing roles in health and disease. A wholistic view may be more important than considering individual nutrients in isolation for precipitating disease. In fact, dairy consumption seems to be negatively associated with type 2 diabetes risk. Science and our understanding are still evolving, and recommendations for adults generally favor low-fat dairy.
If you want to improve heart health, you should focus on moderate consumption of dairy such as a low fat-unsweetened yogurt and adhering to a healthy lifestyle, including fiber and produce-rich foods in the diet and maintaining a healthy weight.
Making definitive claims regarding cancer potentiation as it relates to diet, is a notoriously complex topic as cancer itself is complex and multifactorial. There are many confounding factors, and no one eats a particular food in isolation. Some observational trials have suggested a positive role in dairy consumption with breast cancer development, but observational trials are known to be fraught with the potential for bias.
Research does suggest that the vitamin D and calcium in dairy may be protective against colorectal cancer. Probiotic yogurt, which is fermented and contains beneficial probiotic organisms, and help to populate the gut with commensal bacteria that may attenuate cancer risk and improve immunity. There is some evidence of a link between dairy intake and breast cancer, but evidence is weak and contradictory.
Allergies and intolerance
During infancy, most humans can digest lactose, as it is an important carbohydrate component of human milk. Once weaned, the digesting enzyme lactase declines, and for some individuals, it declines enough to produce an intolerance to dairy consumption to a variable degree. These lactose intolerant individuals may experience gas, pain, and diarrhea upon ingestion of a given quantity of lactose.
Some persons even have allergies or an immunological reaction to milk components (usually casein protein), which typically involves hives, rash, runny nose, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, failure to thrive and rarely, anaphylactic shock, which is a medical emergency.
Substitutes and concluding thoughts
Dairy products such as cheese (not processed options like cheese-whiz), milk and preferably high protein, low fat unsweetened yogurt, can be consumed moderately as part of a healthy diet. These food items are rich in protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals vital for health, but they are not the only option.
Whether it is a matter of preference, lifestyle choice or contraindication because of an intolerance or allergy, you may choose to select dairy alternatives. One should exercise cognizance when purchasing these alternatives, however, and choose plant-based milks that are unsweetened or lower in added sugars, higher in protein and fortified with vitamins and minerals. Some milk options such as almond, oat and rice milks tend to have negligible quantities of nutrients like protein.
When thinking about optimizing health, it is best to take a macro perspective and focus on moderation, diversity and consuming whole foods and less processed foods while not necessarily moralizing and eradicating certain foods from your diet unless deemed by health or lifestyle choice.
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