I was able to attend a webinar this past week titled "To Dairy or Not to Dairy?" As a dietitian, I've had several patients over the years express uncertainty as to whether or not dairy products are truly beneficial.
Here's a quick peek at some things currently in my fridge. You'll notice there is dairy- 2% milk- but also some non-dairy alternatives.
Some of the negatives about dairy (cow's milk and cow's milk yogurt/cheese/cottage cheese/etc) that you've maybe heard would be:
-it causes inflammation
-the hormones in it can harm your body
-it's bad for the environment
-you can't have it if you're lactose intolerant
Okay- inflammation. What exactly does that mean? Think of inflammation as a state of internal stress for the body. There are specific biochemical markers that your body releases when there is stress/inflammation present. Research tells us that saturated fats can promote inflammation. Dairy- like all animal products- can contain saturated fat. BUT, many forms of dairy also come in nonfat versions. Furthermore, dairy products like yogurt and kefir have beneficial probiotics that can work to decrease inflammation.
Hormones in milk just sound nasty, but all dairy milk is going to have trace amounts of naturally occurring hormones from the cow. You've maybe seen on certain milk labels "From cows not treating with rBGH"- this means that the dairy farm/facility chooses not to use a legal-in-the-US-but-not-Canada-or-Europe synthetic growth hormone. If you DO drink milk from cows treated with rBGH, there is not currently strong evidence that links this to any harmful side effects.
The environmental impact of cow's milk is somewhat well documented: Cows require a lot of land and a lot of food, and a lot of water. When you drink a non-dairy milk, of course there is also a need for land and water, but less so. A 2018 Oxford University study found that a glass of cow's milk has three times the environmental impact of soy milk. The least impactful milk? Oat milk (but ick- I don't personally like it!). The environmental impact of dairy does give it one strike out here.
Ahhh, if I had a dollar for every patient who told me "I can't have yogurt- I'm lactose intolerant," I'd have quite a few bucks. Lactose is the sugar that is naturally occurring in cow's milk. People with lactose intolerance lack the enzyme (named lactase) that breaks down the lactose in the gut. If these people were to drink a giant glass of milk, they would likely feel gassy, bloated, and perhaps get diarrhea, but it is not a significant health concern. Cow's milk is the dairy product with the most lactose. Yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese have much less lactose, and so actually those with lactose intolerance usually do just fine tolerating these foods in normal amounts.
I think I've blown through a few myths but also validated the environmental point here. So back to the picture from the top. YES, in my household, we all consume both dairy and non dairy. The bottom dietitian line is that dairy can pack a huge nutritional punch! It gives us a good balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein, and a good boost of calcium as well. Almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, and other milk alternatives just do not come anywhere close to the full nutrition profile of cow's milk. Research does support that calcium from dairy in childhood and adolescents translates to overall better bone density in adulthood.
Why the almond and coconut milk? Honestly I just needed the coconut milk to make the tofu veggie curry we ate earlier this week! My husband prefers the taste of almond milk to cow's milk- simple as that.
The cliche dietitian advice holds true when it comes to dairy- no need to exclude it, but aim for a variety of it! I will always advocate choosing reduced fat or nonfat when possible (such as with milk or cottage cheese), and limiting your intake of hard cheese (because of the high saturated fat content), but there is no need to eliminate it. What is better than a bowl of whole grain cereal with berries and ice cold milk?
Feel free to email me any questions you may have regarding the dairy vs non dairy debate!