As the definition of a healthy diet evolves, the inclusion of dairy is an ongoing debate. Whether you choose to eat these products or not, it’s important to remember that good health is not based on a single food group, and every person’s nutritional needs differ based on age, gender and health history. June, also known as National Dairy Month, is a great time to learn more about the pros and cons of dairy products and how they may impact health.
Pros of a Dairy-Inclusive Diet:
Dairy products include milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, yogurt, dry milk products, condensed milk and whey products. Although the nutritional label for any given item varies, some of the known pros of a dairy-inclusive diet include:
- It Offers Good Nutrition: Depending on the product, dairy can offer a range of nine essential nutrients – calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin and niacin. Just one cup of fortified dairy milk, specifically from pasture-raised or grass-fed cows, provides 24 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D, a nutritional deficiency common in Michiganders. As a valuable source of calcium, dairy products also support bone growth and density, while helping to fight the risk of osteoporosis.
- It’s Protein-Packed: Cow’s milk and other dairy products offer a good source of protein and amino acids. Protein promotes muscle growth and the maintenance of lean muscle mass. It also gives the body a natural sustained energy boost and helps build/repair bodily tissue.
- It Helps Regulate the Body: Yogurt is a natural probiotic and supports a healthy gut. Probiotics are live bacteria that enhance the immune system and promote healthy digestion. The potassium, sodium and calcium in milk, cheese and yogurt also offers electrolytes, which help keep the body balanced to sustain hydration.
Cons of a Dairy-Inclusive Diet:
The only time a person should eliminate a food group from their diet is when they’re directed to do so by a doctor or health care team. With that said, some of the legitimate reasons a person might exclude dairy from their diet, include:
- Many are Intolerant: About 75 percent of the world’s population has a lactose intolerance—a reaction that makes it impossible to properly digest the natural dairy sugar, lactose, found in dairy products. This commonly results in symptoms of gassiness, bloating, flatulence, stomach pains, gut issues and can even cause more drastic symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting or constipation.
- It’s High in Saturated Fat: Some dairy products, particularly whole milk, butter and cheese, should be consumed in moderation due to their saturated fat content. While fat is a macronutrient the body needs to function, experts recommend adults consume only 20 to 35 percent of their daily calories from fat, with more plant-based fats (such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, etc.) than others. This is due to the fact that trans and saturated fats are known to increase total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol LDL levels, heightening the risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
- It Can Carry Disease: Consuming raw dairy milk and its products can lead to serious illness. Without pasteurization, the process of heating milk to a specific temperature to kill bacteria, parasites and viruses can thrive, spreading disease. Brucella, E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella are just some of the germs commonly found in unpasteurized products.
For those with lactose intolerance or aversions to dairy, healthy substitutions are available. There are convenient sources for calcium, vitamin D and other minerals outside of dairy products such as:
- Collard greens
- Rice and soy milk
- Seeds (chia and poppy)
Vitamin D-rich Foods
- Beef liver
- Fortified cereal
Grace Derocha is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.