Dairy foods have been a hot topic in nutrition in recent years. Some tout milk products as a source of calcium, vitamins and protein for bone and muscle health, while others say it is harmful, causing skin breakouts and delivering high levels of saturated fat to the diet. Both of these claims carry some truth, but the magnitude of these statements is difficult to assess.
Dairy has been a staple in diets for thousands of years. All mammalian babies must depend on milk for important nutrients after they first leave the womb, but most species stop consuming it after infancy. Humans, however, have continued to use dairy products throughout their lifespan in a variety of food products. It is believed milk’s ubiquity was a result of it being a byproduct of beef production. It’s utility and consistency as a healthy beverage have made it a cornerstone of many modern cuisines.
Dairy’s popularity was boosted as a result of pasteurization, a process that prevents milk from carrying dozens disease-causing pathogens. Critics claimed processing milk removed flavor, but the nature of this claim made it hard to support. If pasteurization made dairy safer, why then do people continue to turn from dairy?
Some ditch dairy after learning about years of unethical practices, such as artificial insemination of females, removing calves from their parents after birth, or woeful livestock living conditions. Many cows are also forced to carry more than ten times the milk they naturally do in their udders to increase profitability for the farmer. This can result in a disease called mastitis, resulting in infected and swollen udders for the cow.
Many other people stop consuming dairy due to gastrointestinal issues. Figures that show that 65 percent of the global population suffers from lactose intolerance, with non-European populations seeing much higher rates of intolerance. They find their symptoms of diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain are relieved after limiting dairy intake. Recently, products such as Lactaid have become available. They contain the lactase enzyme that is used to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, which can be safely consumed by most lactose intolerant individuals.
On the other hand, the argument for dairy is largely one based on tradition and health. Dairy is found in many products, from baked goods and desserts to hundreds of cheese varieties. It has been a source of nutrition for humans for centuries and is difficult to replicate in culinary applications using non-dairy sources. While replicating dairy-based flavor is difficult to accomplish, cashews, soy and other plant based products are being used to try and do so.
From a health standpoint, dairy is nutrient rich. It is an excellent source of calcium and Vitamin B, which are difficult to obtain from other sources. It is likely that these nutrients are beneficial for bone and overall health, and dairy advocates claim they outweigh any other potential risks, such as weight gain or digestive issues. Studies also mention how lactose intolerant persons can consume products that are not frequently associated with gastrointestinal effects, such as yogurt and some cheeses.
The future of dairy is difficult to project. Widespread dairy consumption has increased in recent years, notably as a result of higher demand in Asia, where dairy products are much less used than in the rest of the world. However, others are turning their backs to dairy products and instead opting for the ever-growing non-dairy substitutes.
Whether or not you choose to consume dairy products depends on your perceived benefits and costs of consumption, along with your body’s reaction to it. Learning about the nutritional benefits and ease of dairy use is important, as are the conditions in which products are created. Dairy contains many important nutrients, but it is uncertain if it can harm the non-lactose intolerant bodies.
If you choose to consume dairy products, health experts suggest you should limit your intake, as many dairy products are sources of saturated fat and calories that can cause weight gain, unless calories are restricted from other parts of a diet. Most individuals only need one or two servings of dairy products a day to get their necessary nutrients. The rest is made up for in foods like beans and vegetables that supplement calcium and protein intake.
If you choose to avoid dairy products, you should be aware of the nutrients you must otherwise consume in other foods. Plant-based milk options are not nutritionally comparable with dairy products, and could lead to a nutrient deficiency in the diet if this is not accounted for.
Two of these nutrients to account for are calcium and B vitamins. Fortunately, there are non-dairy foods that supply calcium, such as fortified breads, cereals and leafy greens. Most non-dairy sources of calcium are poorly absorbed, so it is recommended to consume Vitamin D with them to increase intake of calcium. Healthy Vitamin D sources include fortified orange juice, egg yolks and oily fish.
Legumes, leafy greens and fortified foods can be used to replace missed B vitamins, including the difficult to find B12 Vitamin. This vitamin is crucial to avoid anemia, fatigue and difficulty maintaining hormone levels in the body.
In short, dairy has become criticized and praised in large amounts for its health effects, and it is difficult to discern which side holds more weight. Dairy has played and continues to play a huge role in our food culture. Regardless of whether you consume dairy or not, it is imperative to your physical and mental health that you intake the correct amounts of nutrients needed to support a healthy lifestyle. Dairy contains many key nutrients for health, but those all can be found in different foods. Until further research is out, it is up to you to decide if dairy has a place in your diet.