The Great Dairy Debate

by karen on December 21, 2018

Over the past few years, milk and dairy foods have gotten some bad press. If you’ve already weighed in on the decision of whether to include these foods in your diet, I want to provide some guidance that is based on science. In this vein, we can perhaps take out some of the unproven, inconsistent factors and help you make an educated choice.

You probably get frustrated, perhaps on a regular basis, that so much of what we hear and read about nutrition and diet is conflicting. There are many components contributing to this; one being that research can be confusing. When we get information from internet blogs, nightly news reporters, and women’s magazines, it is likely that the writer is neither a scientist nor trained in analyzing research. Because sensation sells, headlines on nutrition topics tend to overstate and overstretch the facts—or worse, they are misinterpreted altogether.

This phenomena is what we’re experiencing with dairy. In reviewing the recent research on the topic, healthcare experts are concluding that among US adults, three to four servings of dairy per day is healthy to consume and lowers the risk of heart disease and death. Most should avoid whole milk and instead consume non-fat and low-fat milk, cheeses, and fermented dairy foods.

The challenge today is that with so much nutrition information (and misinformation) at our fingertips, we must filter fact from fiction. Here are some dairy facts you can use to decide whether milk and milk products are right for you.

Dairy Facts

Not all milk is created equal. To determine whether you should have full-fat or low-fat dairy, look at the overall fat content of your diet. If you consume a diet with less than 25-30% of your calories from fat, are at a healthy weight, have normal cholesterol numbers, and exercise regularly, full-fat dairy foods may be fine for you. But most of us don’t fall into that category and would benefit from consuming nonfat or 1% milk and limiting fatty cheeses to a few ounces per week.

Milk is nutritious. A single cup of milk contains about 300 mg calcium—almost ⅓ of the daily recommendation. Milk is one of a handful of foods that has vitamin D, a vitamin almost everyone is deficient in, and is a good source of B vitamins, potassium, and phosphorus. Virtually no one gets enough potassium in their diet, and a cup of milk gives 10% of the recommended amount. Milk offers a good balance of carb and protein and has been shown to be a good post-workout food/beverage as a result

Pasture-raised cow’s milk is superior. Cows raised in pasture and fed grass have more omega-3 fatty acids and up to 500% more conjugated linoleic acid, a healthy fat that appears to lower the risk of many diseases.

Fermented milk products have a leg up. A hypothesis that needs further research is that milk may have inflammatory carbohydrates in them, namely lactose and galactose. Inflammatory foods increase oxidative stress that contributes to premature aging and progression of chronic disease. Fermented dairy foods like yogurt, kefir, cultured buttermilk, acidophilus milk, lasse, and cheese protect against this inflammation because fermentation breaks down these potentially inflammatory sugars.

Dairy supports bone health. Calcium is the main mineral in our bones, and dairy is the best source of calcium in the human diet. A currently unidentified component in dairy makes calcium more absorbable and the superior way to meet our calcium needs—much better than calcium supplements. Three 1-cup servings of milk or yogurt are recommended daily for bone health. If you don’t consume that, two 600 mg calcium supplements are in order.

Milk intake can help manage blood pressure. Potassium and magnesium in milk, in sufficient amounts in the diet, can keep blood pressure managed as well as or better than following the well-known guideline of limiting salt intake. Three servings of dairy and a healthy abundance of fruits and vegetables are the diet basis for controlling blood pressure.

Some are lactose intolerant. It is estimated that lactose intolerance affects about 30 to 50 million adults in the US. It is most common in people of Asian descent, and least common in caucasians, due to these people’s respective histories of consuming unfermented dairy foods. People who are lactose intolerant have digestive symptoms when they consume dairy foods that contain the milk carbohydrate lactose. Even those who lack the enzyme to digest milk can build their tolerance with routine milk intake.To assess the lactose content of foods, the grams carbohydrate in a dairy product reflect the amount of lactose.

Some are allergic to milk’s protein. If someone is allergic to milk, it is likely the protein, casein, that is the culprit. There are milks available that have casein removed.  Research is flimsy on other health issues associated with casein.

Cows have a negative impact on the environment. Dairy cows and their manure produce greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. Poor handling of manure and fertilizers can degrade local water resources. Air becomes heavily polluted in and around large dairy farms. Unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as prairies, wetlands, and forests.

Dairy can increase acne. If you suffer from acne, keep your diet the same but cut out dairy for three weeks. If your acne improves, your skin may be sensitive to dairy, and a reduction or change to an alternative milk may be appropriate.

If you decide dairy is going to be part of your healthy diet, choose organic, pasture-raised products and include those that are fermented, including yogurt and kefir, on a regular basis.

If you’ve chosen to eliminate dairy, you’ll need a calcium supplement or calcium-fortified foods, as few other foods provide an absorbable form of calcium in any appreciable amounts, and sufficient dietary calcium intake is needed for bone, muscle and metabolic health.


Karen Fisher, MS, RDN, CDE is a dietitian in Reno, Nevada, happily promoting the benefits of healthy foods at her nutrition consulting firm, Nutrition Connection. Find her website at

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