Q: I’ve heard dairy is not as healthy as I grew up believing, but don’t I need it for strong bones?
Dairy—milk, cheese, yogurt and other products—is loved and enjoyed by many on a daily basis. But is dairy really necessary for a complete diet? Not necessarily. Can it be healthy? Yes, but not for everyone. There are advocates both for and against including dairy in a healthy diet—and both sides wield valid arguments.
Dairy is a natural and pure source of protein, fats and carbohydrates, with nutrients such as calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which are essential for healthy bones and teeth. For those who can tolerate lactose, dairy is a healthy, convenient and reasonably cheap addition to the diet. Fermented dairy products such as yogurt, kefir and cheeses are also associated with intestinal and digestive health. And for the athlete, dairy products may also make a good post-workout recovery snack, thanks to the insulin spike produced by the natural lactose milk sugars combined with the protein.
Certain ethnicities are much more prone to lactose intolerance. Lactose is highest in milk products and is lowered by fermentation processes. So yogurt has smaller amounts of lactose, and hard cheeses and butter are virtually lactose-free. Casein (another protein found in dairy) is found in all dairy products and may also be problematic and cause reactions in a smaller number of people.
Other drawbacks of consuming dairy include the hormones in some milk, and potential effects of homogenization—which changes the structure of fat globules in the milk to make the texture more uniform and prevent separation.
What about calcium?
Alternate sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, nuts and seafood. It’s important to remember that phytic acid, found in wheat bran and other whole grains, decreases calcium’s absorption. Also, phosphorous in sodas, alcohol and high levels of caffeine can deplete calcium stores.
What to buy
Over the past decade people have steadily shifted toward low-fat milk in the belief that it’s healthier. But recent studies reveal that there is no link between full-fat dairy and weight gain, increased risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. In fact, consumers of full-fat dairy showed lower body-fat levels and less long-term weight gain.
Bottom line: If you feel better not eating dairy there are many alternatives to get sufficient calcium. If you enjoy dairy products and choose to incorporate them into a balanced diet, look for organic, natural, un-homogenized versions, and skip the skim.