The Science of Dairy and Its Effect on Health

Dairy has been a staple in our diets for centuries, cherished not only for its rich flavors but also for its nutritional benefits. In fact, you might have drank as much milk as possible when growing up or at least have seen several ads saying that milk and other dairy products were essential for stronger bones and muscles.

However, in recent years, there have been debates surrounding its role in a balanced diet. While dairy products are undeniably rich in essential nutrients such as calcium, protein, and vitamin D, questions regarding their necessity in a healthy diet persist. Issues about lactose intolerance and potential health implications have also been an ongoing discussion among the general public. In this article, we’ll delve into the world of dairy and its impact on our health. We’ll also discuss whether dairy is necessary or not and list some alternatives for those with lactose intolerance and dairy allergies. Let’s get mooo-ving!

What is Dairy? 

Dairy is a food or drink that is made from milk and it comes in various forms, each boasting its own unique nutritional profile. Here are the most common dairy products in the market:

Milk

Milk serves as the foundation of all dairy products and is available in multiple forms: whole, reduced-fat (2% milk fat), low-fat (1% milk fat), and fat-free. Flavored options like chocolate and strawberry are available as well! And while each variant differs in fat content, they all provide essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

Cheese

Cheese, another dairy favorite, is produced by curdling milk, and it comes in hundreds of varieties, each with its unique taste, texture, and nutritional value. The National Dairy Council states that cheese is a great source of calcium, protein, and vitamin B12, making it a nutritious addition to our diets. Moreover, cheese is suitable for people with lactose intolerance as it contains dairy nutrients but has minimal lactose content.

Yogurt and other fermented milk products

Yogurt is a delightful dairy treat, which stands out both in flavor and nutrition. It is made by fermenting milk with live bacteria, which gives yogurt its tangy taste and creamy texture. What’s terrific about this dairy product is that it contains probiotics, the friendly bacteria that are beneficial for our gut health. This is especially true for Greek yogurt, which is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt and packs even more protein.

Note that yogurt isn’t the only fermented milk option out there. One less popular product is Kefir, a fermented milk drink that contains more nutritional value and fewer calories than yogurt. Kefir consists of at least three times more good bacteria (such as  Streptococcus and Lactobacillus species) as well as greater antioxidant activity, making it a beneficial addition to your diet.

Butter

Butter is made by churning cream and is well-known for its rich flavor and creamy texture. While it does contain saturated fats which are known can have a potentially harmful effect on health, butter can be part of a balanced diet as long as it is used in moderation. For those looking for alternatives, there are also options like clarified butter and ghee, which are processed to remove certain components, altering their nutritional profile and cooking properties.

Nutrients in Dairy

Calcium & Vitamin D

Dairy stands as a powerhouse of calcium, a mineral paramount to building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. Did you know that about 99% of the calcium in our bodies is stored in our bones and teeth? The remainder is found in blood and tissues, where it plays a crucial role in mediating bodily processes like muscle contraction and nerve transmission. 

But calcium doesn’t work alone; it teams up with Vitamin D, another nutrient found in milk, by enhancing calcium absorption in the gut, ensuring that we get the maximum benefit from our diets. The dynamic duo of calcium and vitamin D found in dairy can be instrumental in fortifying our skeletal system and preventing conditions like osteoporosis.

Protein

Another nutrient commonly found in dairy products is protein. Protein is a vital biomolecule, playing a role in building and repairing tissues, including our muscles. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition underscores the high-quality protein in dairy, revealing its potential to promote muscle synthesis and contribute to overall protein intake. Whether you’re looking to build muscle, maintain your muscle mass, or simply ensure you’re getting enough protein, dairy can be a valuable ally in achieving these goals.

B Vitamins

Dairy products are also rich in several B vitamins, particularly B12, which are essential for maintaining nerve function and the production of DNA and red blood cells. Regular consumption of dairy can help ensure we’re getting enough of these vital vitamins, supporting our body’s energy production and overall well-being.

Fats

Fat in dairy can be a tricky subject, but it is all about balance. Dairy contains a mix of saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. While we should monitor our intake of saturated and trans fats due to their potential impact on heart health, unsaturated fats can be beneficial. The key is moderation and balance to ensure that dairy contributes positively to our overall dietary patterns.

Health Benefits of Dairy

As discussed in the previous section, there’s a wide range of dairy products available and they all contain various nutrients like calcium, vitamins, and proteins. But skeptics have pointed out that these essential nutrients found in dairy can also be obtained from other sources such as green leafy vegetables and sardines which can serve as excellent alternatives for those seeking to fulfill their calcium needs. Additionally, there are increasing concerns about dairy products causing health risks like diabetes and inflammation. However, a recent study about the effects of milk and dairy products on inflammatory biomarkers shows that dairy does not contribute to inflammatory responses in healthy individuals. In fact, the study found that dairy can play a significant role in reducing inflammation in healthy individuals or subjects with metabolic disorders. 

Aside from its anti-inflammatory effects, various scientific studies also show the benefits of dairy in your diet. Here are some of them.

Bone Health

According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50 years will experience osteoporotic fractures in their lifetime. To avoid this condition, one potent strategy is to incorporate dairy products into our diet. A comprehensive study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition illustrated a positive correlation between dairy intake and bone mineral density, demonstrating dairy’s role in bone health. Additionally, other studies showed that individuals who consumed more dairy had a significantly lower risk of osteoporotic fractures. This paints a vivid picture of dairy’s potential as a shield against the brittle and fragile bones that characterize osteoporosis.

Muscle Mass Maintenance

Aside from maintaining healthy bones, dairy is also effective in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, showing its benefits in muscle maintenance. In fact, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming dairy products led to better muscle health and function in older adults. This information is pivotal, particularly for the aging American demographic, showcasing that dairy isn’t just for the young, but a lifelong companion in maintaining muscle vitality.

Weight Management

With over 42% of Americans struggling with obesity, finding foods that aid in weight management can be crucial. If you’re trying to manage your weight, one particular food to incorporate into your diet is a diary as dairy consumption was associated with a reduced risk of obesity and metabolic disorders. This evidence is crucial in the ongoing battle against the obesity epidemic, spotlighting dairy as a potential ally.

Gut Health

A research study showcased that consuming fermented dairy products like yogurt improved gut microbiota and contributed to better gut health. This illustrates the intrinsic link between dairy, gut health, and overall wellness. On top of that, a connection between gut health and mental well-being reveals that probiotics found in fermented dairy could have potential benefits for mood and mental health.

Cancer Prevention

The relationship between dairy consumption and cancer prevention has also been a topic of extensive research. A particular study has highlighted the protective effects of dairy against colorectal cancer, one of the most common types of cancer worldwide. The study found that high consumption of total dairy and milk was associated with a lower risk of developing cancer in the proximal and distal colon as well as the rectum.

Overall, while dairy products contain nutrients that can be found in other foods, it still is beneficial to add them to your diet. It’s important to note that not all dairy products are created equal, and their impact on health can vary significantly depending on the type and quantity consumed. The inclusion of dairy in one’s diet ultimately depends on individual health requirements, dietary goals, and personal preferences.

Dairy Alternatives: Plant-Based Options

With the rise in lactose intolerance and vegan diets, dairy alternatives have taken center stage in many households. From almond to soy, oat to cashew, these non-dairy milks offer a variety of flavors and consistencies that can be tailored to individual preferences and dietary needs. Nutritionally, while dairy milk is naturally rich in calcium, protein, and vitamin B12, many dairy alternatives are fortified to match these levels. However, these non-dairy milk contain varying amounts of nutrients. For instance, almond milk might be lower in calories and protein compared to soy milk, and coconut milk often contains higher levels of saturated fats.

When choosing a dairy alternative, it is vital to consider your individual health requirements and dietary goals. If you’re seeking a protein-packed option, soy or pea milk might be your go-to. On the other hand, those looking for a creamier, nuttier flavor might gravitate towards cashew or macadamia milk. But remember, always read and understand the label. Check for unwanted additives and sugars, and ensure that it is fortified if you’re aiming to replace the nutrients found in traditional dairy.

Conclusion

Navigating the diverse landscape of dairy and its alternatives is a great opportunity to improve our diets and bolster our health. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that while dairy can be a great addition to a healthy diet, it is not an absolute necessity for everyone. Additionally, not all dairy products are created equal, and moderation is key to optimizing its benefits. For those exploring dairy alternatives,  we highly recommend researching the nutritional content and added fortification to guarantee that you are getting the right nutrients. More importantly, consult with licensed nutritionists or registered dietitians as they can provide personalized guidance and ensure that your journey with dairy is tailored to your unique health profile and dietary goals.

References:

Baniasadi, M., Azizkhani, M., Saris, P. E. J., & Tooryan, F. (2022). Comparative antioxidant potential of kefir and yogurt of bovine and non-bovine origins. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 59(4), 1307-1316.

Ghasemi-Sadabadi, M., Ebrahimnezhad, Y., Shaddel-Tili, A., Bannapour-Ghaffari, V., Kozehgari, H., & Didehvar, M. (2019). The effects of fermented milk products (kefir and yogurt) and probiotic on performance, carcass characteristics, blood parameters, and gut microbial population in broiler chickens. Archives animal breeding, 62(1), 361-374.

Thorning, T. K., Raben, A., Tholstrup, T., Soedamah-Muthu, S. S., Givens, I., & Astrup, A. (2016). Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. 

Barrubés, L., Babio, N., Becerra-Tomás, N., Rosique-Esteban, N., & Salas-Salvadó, J. (2019). Association between dairy product consumption and colorectal cancer risk in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Advances in Nutrition, 10(suppl_2), S190-S211.

Godos, J., Tieri, M., Ghelfi, F., Titta, L., Marventano, S., Lafranconi, A., … & Grosso, G. (2020). Dairy foods and health: an umbrella review of observational studies. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 71(2), 138-151.

Bonjour, J. P., Kraenzlin, M., Levasseur, R., Warren, M., & Whiting, S. (2013). Dairy in adulthood: from foods to nutrient interactions on bone and skeletal muscle health. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 32(4), 251-263.

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