Should You Eat Dairy or Not?


Sarah Heckler, MS, RD/LDN, CISSN

Lately, I have had so many clients and friends inquire about the health benefits and risks of dairy. It seems odd that dairy has become such a hot topic when it has been around for decades. Nonetheless, we are here to provide you with the cold hard facts to help you decide if dairy is best for you because like all things nutrition, the answer to the question, “Is dairy good for my health?” varies on an individual basis.

Dairy: What Is It?

Dairy includes animal milk, yogurt and cheeses, generally from cows or goats.  They provide nutrients that are components of a healthy diet including protein, calcium, potassium, vitamin D, carbohydrates and fat. Calcium and vitamin D are known for aiding in bone and teeth health, however dairy is not the only source of these nutrients.

The carbohydrates in dairy are provided by the natural sugar lactose, which is highest in milk. This is why people with lactose intolerance can tolerate yogurt and cheese better than milk. Lactose intolerance occurs when someone doesn’t have enough of the enzyme lactase to appropriately breakdown lactose, resulting in uncomfortable symptoms like bloating and diarrhea. Yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, skyr and certain cheeses undergo fermentation, which breaks down some of the lactose for you.  Plus, fermented dairy products have probiotics, healthy bacteria that aid in gut health. For more information on fermented foods and gut health click here.

Pro Tip: Dairy can also make for a great post-workout snack, especially for endurance athletes. Research suggests that chocolate milk has the 4:1 carb:protein ratio recommended for post-workout recovery. It also is a great source of electrolytes and fluid to aid in hydration status. Check out our Decadent Recovery Hot Chocolate recipe here.

The Benefits of Dairy

Dairy has also been shown to reduce the risk of childhood obesity. For adults, it can also improve body composition and aid in weight loss during low calorie diets due to the high quality protein provided by dairy. Dairy has been shown to have a neutral or reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease more specifically stroke. Some studies have shown that eating dairy reduced the risks of certain cancers like colorectal, bladder, gastric and breast cancer. Overall, dairy provides essential nutrients that make up a healthy diet and may protect against some of the worst chronic disease.

Health Concerns of Dairy

Health concerns associated with dairy consumption include the following;

  • Cholesterol and saturated fat. Diets high in fat increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Dairy consumption is linked to higher rates of reproductive cancers, specifically prostate cancer.
  • Normal hormone function may be affected by added recombinant bovine growth hormone.

Can you live without dairy?

Ultimately, for those who can tolerate dairy, there are many health benefits from the consumption of dairy foods. However, dairy is not a necessary component of a healthy diet. For those who cannot tolerate dairy, there are other ways to consume the same nutrients that dairy offers such as calcium and vitamin D.

Non-dairy sources of calcium

  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Other leafy greens
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Sesame seeds
  • Fortified products like orange juice and soy milk

Other Sources of Vitamin D

  • Sunlight
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified non-dairy milk products like almond milk
  • Canned salmon with the bones

Should you eat diary or not?

To determine your personalized needs, check out our nutrition services here. We can help!