It's one of the most polarizing, divisive nutrition questions of our time: should you eat dairy? For some, this food group is the ultimate villain — the cause of inflammation, digestive woes, acne, fatigue . . . the list goes on. If you asked a room of people to raise their hands if they've felt personally victimized by dairy, you'd likely get a vehement response.
Conversely, there are those who can't live without it — and dietitians who say it's an excellent protein-packed addition to the diet. Many healthy dieters are ricocheting from the "fat is bad for you" fad of the '90s and reaching for full-fat dairy, whole milk, and more.
So . . . who is actually right?
The answer is unfortunately not so simple. And because we wanted to give you the best, most fair, most well-rounded facts from all sides, we interviewed not one but six nutrition experts with different backgrounds, specialties, and opinions. As you can imagine, we got quite the range of responses; let's break it down.
The biggest pro-dairy argument is that it's packed with nutrients, and if you're not physically intolerant to it, you can reap a lot of nutritional benefits from incorporating it into your diet. Milk, for instance, is an excellent source of protein.
"Dairy provides a unique nutrition package that helps people of all ages achieve several nutrients, including three nutrients that the USDA Dietary Guidelines deems 'nutrients of concern,'" said Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD. "That includes potassium, magnesium, and calcium."
Kim Larson, RDN, CSSD, CHC, owner of Total Health and a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agrees. "Dairy products are a nutrient-rich food group that provide some of the most important nutrients for good health that many Americans simply don't get enough of in their daily diet," she said. "They provide calcium, vitamins, A, D, B12, B6, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and of course, protein."
Larson also told POPSUGAR that this is an ideal food group for athletes. "The protein in milk products contains leucine, the primary amino acid that turns on muscle building — more than any other [amino acid]. So for athletes, it's a great way to build muscle and recover after workouts and keep protein levels adequate throughout the day."
"Scientific research does not definitively warn against the danger of dairy products."
Dairy also serves as a way to get an even distribution of protein throughout the day without eating meat or taking protein supplements. Larson emphasized the importance of this, saying, "Recent research shows that eating ample protein distributed evenly throughout the day helps maintain lean muscle mass, which is especially important for athletes."
There's also not a ton of research proving that dairy isn't good for you — the pro here is that there's no "official" con. Despite citing "some well-designed studies" that were not in dairy's favor, Dina L. Aronson, MS, RDN, said, "Scientific research does not definitively warn against the danger of dairy products." She took a neutral approach to dairy, and when we asked whether she thought it was good or bad, she said, "It depends, really. It's a food with both beneficial and potentially damaging components." Let's talk about those damaging components . . .
Here's the deal: if your body cannot tolerate dairy, you're in for a rough time if you've got plans to polish off a wheel of brie or a pint of Ben & Jerry's. The main problem-causing culprits in dairy include lactose, casein, and whey.
According to the US National Library of Medicine, 65 percent of people in the world have a "reduced ability to digest lactose." Lactose intolerance isn't as black and white as you might think, though, so that 65 percent doesn't necessarily mean that each and every one of those people will have an extreme reaction to a glass of milk or pat of butter. Dr. Robin Berzin, founder and CEO of Parsley Health and functional medicine doctor (who is staunchly antidairy), describes lactose intolerance as a spectrum. "For a long time we talked about lactose intolerance; either you had it or you didn't. It's not as simple as that. Having problems with dairy is more like a spectrum."
She told POPSUGAR, "Here's the science: many people are sensitive to both casein and whey, the two major proteins in all dairy — not just cow's dairy. This sensitivity causes all kinds of problems beyond an upset stomach." This includes skin problems. "Too often your body thinks these things are a foreign invader and [your body] is trying to protect you," Dr. Berzin said. "This immune activation can cause symptoms ranging from headaches, digestive distress, and acne and eczema."
Jessica Flanigan, clinical and functional nutritionist (with a Paleo specialty), agrees. "Dairy is one of the top allergens in our diet," she told POPSUGAR. Here's how the proteins in dairy could cause problems for your body: "Casein, the protein in dairy, can sometimes crossreact with tissue antigens — like the thyroid — in the body. That can be problematic and can keep driving inflammation." She said that some people "have issues with breaking down lactose," but another issue is the "actual immune response to casein." This dairy-specific protein "can actually perpetuate immune issues for some people. That can be serious."
"This immune activation can cause symptoms ranging from headaches, digestive distress, and acne and eczema."
But Larson (who is a dairy advocate) disagrees with the notion of inflammation, saying, "There is no evidence to support the notion that dairy foods cause inflammation — [it's] a common misconception."
Dr. Berzin also admitted that "there is such a thing as healthy dairy." If you choose organic, full-fat, grass-fed, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free dairy from cows, sheep, and goats with no added sugar — and you're not lactose intolerant — Dr. Berzin believes that is a safe choice for your diet.
Making a Decision
Before you come to any personal conclusions, you really need to figure out whether you are or are not dairy-sensitive before making a diet change. Fundamentally, there's no reason to add dairy into your diet if you don't eat it already (there are other sources of the nutrients found in milk — you might just have to try harder to get them). "I tell my clients that there is nothing nutritious in dairy products that you can't easily find in healthier foods," said Aronson. You also don't need to cut it out if it's not affecting your health. Like cheese? No digestive problems? You're cool.
Larson told us that if a person gives up dairy, they need to be "very deliberate" to compensate for nutritional gaps. She emphasized that it is imperative that you get "calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and magnesium from things such as dark leafy greens, fatty fish (for vitamin D), and an extra amount of fruits and vegetables."
Despite her knowledge of inflammation and intolerance, Flanigan still acknowledged that "dairy tastes good" and noted that her grandfather was a dairy farmer — "I grew up on raw milk," she told us. But she's allergic to it, and dairy is no longer a part of her diet. "I do not consider it a nutrient-dense food; I recommend sparse use of it for healthy folks, and I highly recommend those with autoimmune disease to get a food sensitivity test to see if it is an immune trigger."
If you do choose to keep dairy in your diet, there are ways to make it healthier. "If you tolerate dairy, it is wise to choose unprocessed, hormone-free, cultured dairy like Greek yogurt or kefir," said Visnic. "In general, goat and sheep's dairy is tolerated better than cow's dairy. For instance, many clients report symptoms to cow's cheese like mozzarella, but not to sheep cheese like manchego or pecorino." She also described factors to consider when choosing dairy for your diet and suggested opting for rBST-hormone-free grass-fed dairy.
Dr. Berzin described some additional warnings and considerations, including processing, added sugar, and more — all of which can adversely affect your health — so keep these ideas in mind when choosing dairy products. "Most dairy is highly processed and has added sugars," she said. "A lot of people don't realize they need to watch out for yogurts with high sugar content, which will sabotage the benefits of the protein they are getting from the yogurt. Many skim milks are actually dehydrated and reconstituted and have added chemicals and preservatives while being devoid of some of the healthy fats in dairy."
As another advocate of grass-fed, hormone-free dairy, Robin mentioned that "a lot of the dairy we eat comes from industrially farmed and raised cows who eat corn and grains, not grass as cows are meant to. The cows are also treated with hormones and antibiotics that then find their way from the dairy and into our bodies." She also advocated for raw dairy, calling it "a living food" with "enzymes and antibodies in it," but said "most dairy we consume is pasteurized (flash heated) to kill germs, also killing off some of dairy's benefits and making it hard for people to digest."
"People often think that dairy is a necessary food group, but it simply is not. It is optional."
If you're lactose intolerant, Lemond and Larson suggested trying an alternative before eradicating dairy from your diet. "The solution is not necessarily to avoid dairy, but to eat low-lactose dairy. There are lactose-free milks and cheeses, and most yogurts are tolerated fine by people with lactase deficiency since the bacteria helps with lactose breakdown," said Lemond. Larson seconded that notion, saying that "even [those who are lactose intolerant] can tolerate small amounts of dairy products low in lactose, like hard cheeses, yogurt, and lactose-free milks [that] are easily found in the grocery store."
Aronson, despite being somewhat antidairy, doesn't say it's a necessity to remove it from your diet either, but she still recommends removing it. "People often think that dairy is a necessary food group, but it simply is not. It is optional. If you like it, enjoy it as you would a condiment or treat. But you're not going to achieve optimal health by guzzling milk or popping chunks of cheese."
Deciding on dairy is personal; you don't have to eat it because the USDA says so, and you don't have to get rid of it because it's "trendy" (and the Kardashians don't like it). We suggest working directly with a nutritionist or registered dietitian who will work with you to see what is right for your body specifically — don't follow a cookie-cutter plan blindly, and don't eliminate a food group just because someone says it's bad (just as you wouldn't start eating something because someone says it's good for everyone). What's right for you? Everyone's body is so nuanced and unique, so find the right foods to fuel you and make you feel amazing.