Updated: Jun 22, 2022
Wondering whether dairy products are right for you? Learn why dairy is important and what dairy does to your body here.
One of the most common questions I get asked as a diet expert is “are dairy products bad for you?” For some reason, self-run dairy elimination diets run rampant these days. So, let’s settle this once and for all -- is dairy good for you?
The short answer is yes, dairy is healthy for many people. It provides a powerhouse of nutrient value, especially vitamins and minerals that many Americans are deficient in. However, for those with an allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance, a dietitian can help determine an eating plan that is right for you.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about if dairy items are right for your diet.
Why Eat Dairy
When you look at a typical balanced plate, dairy seems to be a group all its own. But how much do you actually need?
The term “dairy” covers a wide variety of foods, and each item can have a range of fat content. It’s important to understand this food category in order to meet your needs each day. If you’re allergic to dairy or are lactose intolerant, there are some great substitutes out there, too.
Dairy contains crucial dietary components, including protein, vitamins, and minerals. It’s an animal byproduct, so it’s a good source of some of the vitamins and minerals that are harder to find in plant food.
How Much Dairy Should I Eat Each Day?
The most recent dietary guidelines recommend that the average American needs at least 3 cups (or cup equivalents) of dairy each day. “Dairy” can also mean fortified alternatives with as similar a nutrient profile as possible -- for example, soy milk or a non-dairy yogurt alternative.
This table from MyPlate shows how much dairy is recommended for your age:
Dairy Health Benefits
Did you know that around 90% of the U.S. population does not meet dairy recommendations?
Dairy provides protein, which quite literally makes up the building blocks of life, along with calcium and vitamin D. The latter two nutrients have a lot to do with building strong bones.
Dairy & Vitamin D
Vitamin D is often fortified in milk and soy beverages. It exists naturally in many animal products, such as milk, in the form of cholecalciferol. The sun helps convert the vitamin D we eat into a form the body can use.
Additionally, some drinks and foods, such as milk, are often fortified with vitamin D to help make sure you meet your dietary requirements. Vitamin D is also crucial in helping the body maintain hormonal balance.
Calcium is an important nutrient, especially for children. In their second year of life, kids have increased calcium requirements to support their rate of growth and development. Vitamin D works with calcium throughout different stages of life to promote healthy bones.
Are Dairy Products High In Protein?
Dairy like yogurt can be an excellent way to meet protein needs each day. Including dairy in the diet helps lacto-ovo vegetarians achieve a healthy meal pattern.
Why Dairy Is Good For You
Most Americans are in dire need of dairy items. In fact, the most recent dietary guidelines report:
“More than 80 percent have dietary patterns that are low in vegetables, fruits, and dairy.”
Dairy nutrients include some of the most under-consumed vitamins and minerals in the American diet:
While it is possible to get these nutrients from sources other than milk (i.e. in the case of vegans, vegetarians, or an allergy), it is challenging to replace the value dairy provides to the diet. Dairy products also play a role in meeting protein needs.
What Does the “Dairy” Food Group Include?
Dairy encompasses a nutrient-dense group of foods and beverages including:
Yogurt and frozen yogurt
Lactose-free, fortified alternatives (i.e. soymilk and soy beverages)
Again, from MyPlate, here is a reference for the amount of dairy that counts as 1 cup in the “Dairy Group”:
What Doesn’t Count as Dairy?
The following foods can still offer nutrient content, however they aren’t considered “dairy.” This is due to the low calcium content
Foods Too Low In Calcium To Be Considered Dairy
When Is a Dairy Elimination Diet Necessary?
First of all, what is an elimination diet? Elimination diets can be used to help identify foods that are linked to unpleasant symptoms, such as:
While a dairy elimination diet might sound like an easy treatment option, research shows that food exclusion can cause malnutrition. Unnecessary elimination of nutritious foods can deplete the body of vitamins and minerals.
For this reason, diet eliminations and nutrition education from trained dietitians is needed for patients to plan effective strategies. Dietitians can also design eating patterns that reduce the risk of deficiencies while still accounting for allergies and sensitivities.
Though relatively short (usually one to two months in length), they provide crucial clues as to how the body digests food. They have two main phases:
1.The elimination phase- stop eating food(s) thought to be bothersome
The goal: To see if by restricting these foods your symptoms go away
2. The reintroduction phase- reintroduce foods that were restricted, and track which foods are tolerated
The goal: To see if by eating these foods your symptoms return
Generally, foods are eliminated one at a time, in similar groups (i.e. if lactose intolerance is suspected then all dairy may be removed), or multiple food items. In the reintroduction phase, foods are typically added back one at a time to the eating plan.
Discussing Dairy Elimination with Your Practitioner
Ideally, an elimination diet is administered under the care of a dietitian. Your dietitian may work with other professionals (i.e. gastroenterologists or allergists) to rule out other conditions before an elimination diet is suggested.
Before eliminating dairy from the diet, celiac disease can be ruled out through an endoscopic biopsy. A breath test can be done to rule out lactose or fructose intolerance. The results of a breath test can indicate whether the body is capable of digesting certain compounds by measuring the amount of specific gases in the body.
Will Dairy Cause Inflammation?
Recent studies have shown that dairy products may actually have anti-inflammatory properties in individuals who are not allergic to milk. In other words, if you aren’t allergic to dairy, it’s likely that dairy is helping more than it could possibly harm.
Will Dairy Make You Gain Weight?
“Dairy consumption is part of a healthy diet” says recent research. In fact, there really isn’t any evidence in favor of reduced-fat dairy either. Reduced fat options can have additives like sugar that change the taste, and more importantly the nutrient volume, of a product.
“The present evidence suggests that whole-fat dairy foods do not cause weight gain, that overall dairy consumption increases lean body mass and reduces body fat…”
Will Dairy Cause Acne? (How Dairy Affects Skin)
Concerned about getting a dairy rash? Dairy causing acne is largely a myth, with most studies finding any correlation to be dose-dependent. In fact, the rise in whey consumption may actually be the culprit.
In most research, stress is more strongly correlated with acne. This tells us that stress may trigger unhealthy eating or lifestyle habits that are linked to acne, and that dairy is unlikely the cause on its own — unless, of course, the acne is a manifestation of an allergic reaction happening.
When Dairy Causes Bloating Can Dairy Cause Headaches
Often, bloating and headaches are thought to be linked with high dairy consumption. Surprisingly, a recent study on PMS found the opposite. Deficiency of the nutrients dairy provides may actually worsen PMS symptoms.
Bloating and headaches may instead be a signal of intestinal issues, which you can help address with a dietitian and dedicated healthcare team. Be sure to report your symptoms, and it can be helpful to keep a food diary a couple days before you meet with the team to record any correlation between what you eat and how you feel, such as dairy-related headaches or dairy-related heartburn.
How Dairy Affects Hormones
Can dairy intake affect your hormones? Just like anything, eating too much dairy can be a “bad” thing. You’re probably more at risk of drinking too little instead of too much, but to be sure, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to add balance.
Be sure to shop for hormone-free dairy, which means that the cows weren’t given growth hormones (which can make their way into your milk).
Why Dairy Free?
At this point, you may be wondering, “why go dairy free?” There are many reasons a person might go dairy free or change the amount of dairy they consume, including:
Ethical reasons - i.e. vegans
Health reasons- dairy or lactose intolerance, a dairy allergy
Other reasons- adding variety to the diet with diary alternatives
If you’re experiencing dairy intolerance symptoms or dairy sensitivity symptoms, talk to your doctor about a referral for a dietitian. A dietitian can help you make the most of living dairy-free if you must forgo dairy products.
Rest assured, there are plenty of fortified alternatives and great-tasting options — probably more than ever before!
What Dairy Products Have The Least Lactose?
Which dairy products are low in lactose? Some of the following foods are naturally low in lactose, or undergo fermentation in a way that reduces their levels of lactose:
Hard cheeses (i.e. aged cheddar)
What Dairy Products Have The Most Lactose?
Not surprisingly, milk contains a high amount of lactose. Luckily there are lactose-free milks, but if you are avoiding lactose, it may be good to stay away from these high-lactose foods for the time being:
Which Dairy Free Milk Is the Best?
If you’re wondering what dairy free milk is the best, it generally depends on personal preference as well as what you are looking for! Soy milk is heralded for its higher levels of protein, but almond or other nut milks are often appreciated for their taste.
Look into additional options below.
Dairy vs Lactose Free
For those who are lactose intolerant, low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products can be a great option. Fortified soy beverages (i.e. soy milk) often contain supplementary amounts of the following nutrients:
This makes for a similar nutrient composition to milk and allows for soy milk to be included among the dairy group. Adding soy beverages or soy yogurt alongside a meal can be a great way to increase one’s intake of dairy.
Dairy vs Almond Milk
While almond milk can certainly be a nutritious choice, according to the most current dietary guidelines:
“Among plant-based milk alternatives, only fortified soy beverage is currently considered a dairy equivalent. Thus, consuming other plant-based beverages does not contribute to meeting dairy recommendations .”
Dairy To Eat
Dairy products are typically consumed in forms that have higher amounts of sodium and saturated fat. These dairy products can also be sources of added sugars.
When making a dairy products list for grocery shopping, be sure to choose nutrient-rich options. Be especially cautious when considering the following options:
Cheeses as part of a mixed dish (i.e. sandwiches, pizza, pasta dishes)
Higher fat milks and yogurts
Flavored milk or yogurt
Soy-fortified frozen desserts
Dairy to Lose Weight
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests low-fat (1%) or fat-free options when it comes to weight loss:
“Most choices should be fat-free or low-fat.”
Low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, and cheese can still be nutrient-dense options for those looking to lose weight.
It’s also recommended to choose foods and beverages with less of the following to maintain a healthy weight:
Dairy to Eat For Breakfast
Breakfast can be a great opportunity to include more dairy in the diet. Try incorporating an item like unsweetened, fat-free or low-fat yogurt
Dairy for Kids
Families can introduce yogurt, cheese, and soy-based yogurt before 12 months (1 year) to their children. However, infants shouldn’t consume cow’s milk or fortified soy milk as a beverage before 12 months. Instead, they should have human milk or infant formula, which accounts for their daily nutrient needs.
For children under 2 years of age, be sure to offer dairy products without added sugar. Toddler milks and drinks, as well as flavored milks, often contain added sugars. It is best to meet nutrient needs through cow milk or a fortified soy beverage.
Dairy with Added Ingredients
Higher fat milk and yogurt as well as ice creams and frozen dairy desserts account for almost 10% to the average intake of added sugars that Americans consume.
When it comes to saturated fat, the following forms of dairy can contribute dangerously high amounts:
Higher fat milk & yogurt
Ice cream & Frozen dairy desserts
In Summary On Dairy and Dairy-Free Foods
Dairy, as long as you are not allergic, can be a great way to fortify your diet. Many needed nutrients, like vitamin D and calcium, are found in higher levels in dairy foods. If you’re dairy-free (by necessity or by choice) , no worries —here are plenty of awesome alternatives, too.
Dye A. Why I Still Choose Dairy. Eatrightpa.org. Published June 21, 2017.
Gordon B. What is an Elimination Diet. Eatright.org. Published August 13, 2019.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Dietaryguidelines.gov. Published December 29, 2020