The Skinny on Dairy: Is It Good or Bad for You?

Are you as confused as I am about whether or not dairy is good for you? This is one of those food groups that seems to fall in and out of favor on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, you could probably do an internet search right now and find sources for both opinions as to the health benefits or the health dangers of consuming dairy. So, let’s try to sort out some of this conflicting information.

First of all, we are the only animal that consumes the milk of another animal on a regular basis. Because of this, there are folks who argue that using dairy products is “unnatural,” and point to the number of lactose-intolerant people as proof. These folks are not entirely wrong, obviously. However, studies have shown that in cultures where dairy is a large part of the diet, such as northern Europe, lactose intolerance is almost nonexistent. Regions with very low dairy consumption, on the other hand, have extremely high levels. This is evidence that humans are able to change genetically to accommodate dairy in the diet.

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There is the argument that dairy is high in saturated fat and therefore should be avoided in order to maintain cardiovascular health. While it is true that some dairy is high in fat, there is some disagreement in the medical community as to whether or not diet plays a large role in contributing to such problems as high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Genetics are a much more likely culprit in these health issues. Of course, dairy is almost always available as full fat, reduced fat, and low fat. It may seem like common sense would indicate that we should consume the lower-fat products. However, studies by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that children who drink whole milk are leaner and have higher levels of Vitamin D than those who drink the low-fat or non-fat varieties.

One interesting find in the last few years concerning dairy and cardiovascular health is that there is a vast difference in milk from grass-fed cows as opposed to milk from grain-fed cows. Heart disease risks seem significantly lower when consuming full-fat dairy in countries with grass-fed cows. This shift from grain to grass is becoming more popular in the United States.

For a while, there was some concern that consuming milk could lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. This worry was laid to rest by two large studies, one done by Harvard University and one by the Lund University Diabetes Center in Sweden. These studies found that consuming milk actually makes it less likely that an individual will develop type 2 diabetes. In fact, the Harvard study found that teenagers who drink milk are 43% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes as adults compared with non-milk drinkers.

The jury is still out on whether or not consuming dairy products can protect against osteoporosis or bone fractures. There are studies that show these products, while high in calcium, may not actually offer the level of protection as was once believed. While consuming dairy products does seem to improve bone health, it probably isn’t enough to completely protect us from brittle bones.

There are many other pros and cons out there when it comes to the question of dairy products and your health. Of course, if your doctor has a recommendation concerning this topic, that recommendation should be followed. Overall, however, dairy provides us with calcium, protein, phosphorus, and Vitamin D. In addition, products from grass-fed cows provide us with Vitamin K-2, which helps regulate our metabolism. Dairy products may also contribute to brain health. So, while the arguments concerning dairy intake are still ongoing and the health effects vary among individuals, evidence shows that dairy consumption has many benefits.

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