The debate has been raging for many years – are dairy products healthy for the body or not?
Dairy products are one of the best sources of calcium, a vital mineral that helps keep the bones strong and perform all their functions. You see, bones are not just the skeletal system we imagine but also the source of new blood cells. Calcium not only supports blood cell production by maintaining bone density, but it is also vital for nerve transmission and muscle contraction.
While you can also get calcium from mineral water, leafy green vegetables, legumes, dried beans, some types of bony fish, fortified orange juice, and supplements, dairy products are the best source. Dairy products also provide magnesium, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins, and protein.
These are not the only reasons why dairy is good for the body. Dairy products may help you lower your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Are there downsides to consuming dairy products?
Yes, full-fat dairy products are often high in calories and saturated fat. Some items have high sodium contents, especially certain types of hard-aged cheese. Saturated fat has often been blamed as a contributor to heart disease, but recent studies have shown that not to be as strong a case. Numerous other lifestyle and health factors may play more pivotal roles. A team of cardiologists believes that higher intakes of carbohydrate foods, which often increase sugar consumption, may contribute as heart disease rates have increased alongside the “fat-free” movement.
Individuals with lactose intolerance will find a range of dairy products labeled as lactose-free.
Types of Dairy Products
Dairy products are not just from cow’s milk. Depending on the country, they may also come from sheep, goats, buffalo, and other animals. Most people first think of milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, butter, and sour cream. Many other types of dairy products are available, including cream cheese, whey protein, kefir, ghee, buttermilk, whipped cream, and more.
Not all dairy products are equal, as cream, sour cream, butter, and cream cheese have little calcium and high-fat content. They do not provide the same nutritional benefits as yogurt, milk, and cheese. Here are some of the leading types of dairy products:
- Milk: the leading source of dairy, milk comes in full-fat, reduced or low-fat, and fat-free options. Fortification with vitamins A and D is often found in many milk products. Be careful of flavored milk, which can contain significant added sugars, artificial colors, and flavors. Fortified whole milk contains significant amounts of calcium, vitamins D, B-12, and A, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and folate. One cup of whole milk provides over 7 grams of protein.
- Yogurt: One of the most popular dairy products in the world, the fermentation process adds beneficial bacterial cultures to milk. Plain yogurt is the best option, free of sweeteners and artificial ingredients.
- Butter: unlike some other forms of dairy, butter is not nutrient-rich. It is also high in calories and saturated fat and is easy to over-consume.
- Cheese: aged cheese, such as Swiss, gouda, cheddar, and parmesan, have little to no lactose, making them easier to digest. Cheese is an excellent protein source, with fat content varying dependent on the type.
- Cream: as with butter, cream is high in fat and lower in nutrients.
- Cottage cheese: one of the most protein-dense options, cottage cheese is lower in calories, carbohydrates, and fat (lower-fat varieties).
- Sour cream: fermenting cream with a bacterial lactic acid culture provides a dairy product that still provides calcium and vitamins A and D.
- Kefir: this highly fermented dairy product breaks down lactose and is more reminiscent of sour cream in consistency and taste. The bacteria in kefir may provide benefits for gut health.
These are some of the most popular dairy products. Choosing items high in calcium and low in saturated fat are the best options.
Benefits of Dairy Products
Dairy products have many benefits for the body, some more so than others. The winning players are milk, cheese, yogurt, and kefir.
- Heart health: in a 2018 study of over 136,000 people, those consuming more than two full-fat dairy servings daily had lower cardiovascular disease risks and death than those consuming less than half a serving. The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study found that milk and cheese intake brought a 17% lower death risk from all causes, 34% lower stroke risk, and 14% lower cardiovascular disease risk.
- Blood pressure: the nutrients in dairy products may help lower blood pressure levels. Low-fat dairy products offer magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which may help promote vasodilation, influence vascular resistance, and reduce renal retention.
- Endocrine health : Dairy products are an excellent source of protein and are low in saturated fat, which helps our body increase IGF-1 levels, for example. Discover how you can increase IGF-1 levels naturally. Other findings suggest that dairy consumption can help reduce body fat and increase lean body mass, another benefit of including more protein in your diet. Reducing fat also helps with hormone production and decreases the development of type 2 diabetes.
- Digestive health: some studies have found that low and reduced-fat dairy products may decrease the risk of chronic kidney disease. Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and some types of cheese, may provide significant benefits to the microbiome in the gut. Yogurt and kefir have long been known to provide excellent sources of probiotics to the gastrointestinal tract.
- Bone health: you can receive approximately ¼ the among of calcium needed to protect bone health from one cup of milk. Calcium is the number one mineral necessary for strong bones. Fermented milk products seem to offer the best benefits for decreasing fracture incidence. High milk intake (3 or more glasses per day) can have the opposite effect, increasing fracture rate.
- Dental health: the casein in dairy combines with calcium and phosphorus to help re-mineralize tooth enamel. Dairy products also help fight tooth decay and gum disease.
Along with the benefits mentioned above, dairy products benefit some diseases while potentially increasing others.
Reduces the risks of diseases:
- Type 2 diabetes: dairy consumption, especially full-fat yogurt, may lower the risk of developing diabetes. A meta-analysis of over 20 studies showed that a daily serving of yogurt can lower type 2 diabetes risk by 18%. Plain yogurt or plain Greek yogurt are the best options, as they are free of added sugars. Using fresh fruit to sweeten and flavor yogurt is recommended.
- Cancer: Although some specific information is provided below, the Cancer Council of Australia says the evidence is inconclusive, and milk may reduce bladder and colorectal cancer risk. They also warn that high calcium diets may increase prostate cancer risk. The Cancer Council states that the health benefits of dairy consumption outweigh unproven harms. Although this section is about benefits, because dairy fat contains estrogenic hormones, these products could increase certain cancer risks that everyone should know.
- Colorectal: research shows that each 300 mg increase of calcium daily reduces colorectal cancer risk by about 8%. Yogurt intake may help lower the risk of rectal but not colon cancer. Probiotics in some cheeses may help lower colorectal cancer risk. Swedish people, who tend to consume cheese at breakfast, have a lower incidence of colorectal cancer.
- Prostate: high dairy intake (2.5 servings daily) may increase prostate cancer, with whole milk associated with risk progression following diagnosis to fatal disease. 2 ounces or more of cheese may lead to a 10% increase in the risk for prostate cancer.
- Endometrial: no significant association was found in six studies examining milk intake and endometrial cancer risk. Same with cheese in other studies. However, this is not definitive, as other studies have found a correlation between dairy and endometrial cancer.
- Breast: although research is mixed, recent studies show a 50% increased risk of breast cancer for pre-and postmenopausal women consuming high intakes of cow’s milk.
- Ovarian: a Swedish study showed that women consuming two or more glasses of milk daily had twice the risk of developing ovarian cancer than those who rarely or never drank milk.
Dairy products, high in calcium, have many positive health benefits, especially for strengthening bones. However, as with anything, portion control is crucial. Too much of a good thing can rapidly turn bad.
Consuming approximately 2 servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt daily benefits most people. Avoid or limit the consumption of dairy products such as butter, cream cheese, and cream, which have lower nutrient profiles.
Low-lactose cheeses such as Swiss, mozzarella, and cheddar may be easier to tolerate. If you cannot eat dairy, there are other ways of getting calcium into your body. Nuts, nut butter, and seeds provide excellent benefits.