Dairy is quite the topic in the world of health and wellness today. You can find some experts who will tell you dairy is extremely inflammatory and has no place in your diet, while there are others who still follow the USDA’s guidelines of 3 servings of dairy a day to get adequate calcium.
Where do I stand on the great dairy debate?
I’d have to say I’m somewhere in the middle. Today about 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant, so if you fall under this category, dairy-free is necessary. Additionally, lots of individuals who have any sort of GI trouble (IBS, IBD, leaky gut, etc.) may benefit from eliminating dairy as well. With this, it is so important to listen to your own body! If you think you might benefit from going dairy-free, try removing it for 2-3 weeks (while changing nothing else in your diet) and see how you feel. I think it is possible to live a very healthy dairy-free lifestyle, you just want to ensure that you are getting calcium from another source (tofu, white beans, almonds, dark leafy greens, amaranth, etc).
Personally, I am not dairy-free.
I have never struggled with lactose or had any other dairy-related symptoms. While I do think dairy is okay in our diets, I think what is most important is the TYPE and AMOUNT of dairy we consume.
If you are eating dairy, I recommend organic grass-fed whenever possible.
Have you heard the saying “you are what you eat, eats” ? Well, this directly applies here. Conventional (aka non-organic) cows are fed diets filled with corn and synthetic grains, while grass-fed cows roam and eat grass, as cows were intended too. What happens is when cows are fed a healthier diet, they produce healthier milks. A 2018 study showed that grass-fed cows produced milk significantly higher in omega-3s (those great, anti-inflammatory fats) than their conventional counterparts (1).
So now that we understand quality of dairy is important, let’s talk fat.
Please skip the fat-free varieties.
Fat is so important for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K) all of which are found in milk. Additionally, the fat in milk helps balance the sugar (aka lactose) to reduce a spike in blood sugar. When blood sugar spikes and crashes we go through the highs and lows, which can lead to increased cravings and fat storage via the hormone insulin. Sorry, this is getting too science-y—I’m a nerd—but you get the idea.
I promise you, fat will not make you fat (in fact, research shows it will likely do the opposite). People originally believed dairy fat to be bad because it is saturated and for years saturated fats have been blamed for causing heart disease. However, in recent years there has been more and more research that suggests not all saturated fats to be the same. If you want to understand this further, both of these studies suggest that limiting saturated fat or full-fat dairy are not protective against heart disease development (2, 3). For your purposes, just understand we now believe that some saturated fat seems to be okay (hey coconut oil and full-fat dairy).
Now, like with anything, please do not go guzzling half and half with the hope that you will not gain weight or have any other health consequences. Although I don’t usually like to discuss calories, we can’t ignore them altogether, and full-fat dairy products are not low-cal by any means.
Moral of the story, if you are going to choose dairy, a good quality option in small quantities can be part of a healthy diet (think a 2% organic grass-fed Greek yogurt as part of your high protein breakfast). Make sense?