Recently, I was at a boozy brunch when I overheard one of my friends ask our waiter to make sure her omelette was dairy-free. She thought milk and cheese were contributing to her acne, she told me.
It wasn't the first time I'd dined with a friend who was ditching dairy — and it wouldn't be the last. Milk products are the new gluten; at nearly every meal I share, I meet someone who's giving them up. They claim they're allergic, or intolerant. Without it, their complexions glow. Their stomachaches disappear. They have more energy.
The benefits sounded compelling, so I decided to dig into the research to determine whether going dairy-free is really worth it.
The short answer: The jury's still out.
There are pros and cons to eating foods such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt, explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, RDN, the lead dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine. “The data is truly mixed,” she says. “Many organisations will look at the studies and say that dairy is neither good nor bad, because the data is so 50/50.”
We asked experts like Kirkpatrick to help us weigh the pros and cons of dairy. Here's what you should know about the future of your relationship to cheese boards.
Pro: Dairy is full of vitamins the body needs
“Milk offers a little bit of everything your body needs," says Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist for Daily Harvest. “It's rich in vitamin D, calcium, B vitamins, and potassium, nutrients that provide energy, balance hormones, ward off vitamin deficiencies, and more."
That said, you can get all of these vitamins and minerals elsewhere, from milk alternatives or foods. Want calcium? Eat tofu or greens such as broccoli and cabbage. Potassium? Nosh on bananas, avocados, and spinach. B vitamins? Go for fish, almonds, brown rice, and lentils. This is good news for people who have tummy or skin issues due to dairy — or those who just want to cut back for environmental or other ethical reasons.
Con: Dairy might be inflammatory
Science and experts are split on whether or not dairy causes inflammation, Kirkpatrick notes. More research is needed to say for sure. One article published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that dairy seemed to be anti-inflammatory for some people, particularly those with metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions including high blood pressure and high blood sugar). Dairy was shown to be inflammatory, however, in people who were allergic to cow's milk.
That makes sense. If you're allergic — to lactose, the sugar in milk, or to casein, a protein in milk — you'll likely also experience digestive issues after eating dairy, says Kirkpatrick. These kinds of dairy intolerances are impacted by genetics, and one Cornell University study found that people who had the ability to digest milk were mostly from places where dairy cows could be “raised safely and economically.”
"The implication is that harsh climates and dangerous diseases negatively impact dairy herding and geographically restrict the availability of milk, and that humans have physiologically adapted to that," evolutionary biologist Paul Sherman, a professor of neurobiology and behaviour at Cornell, explained in the Cornell Chronicle.
Pro: Dairy might be good for your heart and bones
Drinks like milk were associated with a reduced or neutral risk of type 2 diabetes, and a reduced risk of heart disease, according to a review of several studies published in Food & Nutritions Research. In part, this is because low-fat, calcium-rich foods are often thought to lower blood pressure. Worth noting: Some of the studies authors previously received funding from dairy organisations.
Another study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that fermented dairy products like yoghurt — which contain probiotics, a.k.a. good-for-you bacteria — were associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. (However, it found that non-fermented dairy products were associated with a higher risk.)
And research has linked milk products to improved bone health. This is, in part, because the nutrients in dairy — you know them by now: calcium, phosphorus, protein. They all contribute to bone health, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.
Con: Dairy might cause acne
Kirkpatrick notes that if you have a sensitivity, dairy can cause acne. But there are other culprits of pimples, including stress, environment, and face-touching. If you have acne, dairy isn't necessarily the culprit. "It's never just dairy that causes breakouts," Jeannette Graf, MD, previously told Refinery29. Everyone's skin — like their diet — is different, but some studies have shown that dairy can cause breakouts for some people.
So, should I quit dairy?
Ultimately, Kirkpatrick says whether or not you quit milk, cheese, and ice cream is an individual decision. “As a dietitian, I’m not convinced that dairy is the devil we need to stay away from,” she notes. In other words, if you don't have any issues eating it, there's no medical reason to stop.
But if you experience bloating, diarrhoea, or acne after consuming it, you may want to take a closer look at your relationship to the food group. That could mean removing it from your diet for a couple of weeks to see how it feels, or getting a food sensitivity test at your doctor’s office.
“I would assess how much dairy you consume daily, what the quality is (raw, grass fed, local, sustainable), how you feel after you consume it, what your health goals are (do you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure), and then decide if you need to remove it altogether or maybe just limit your intake,” Shapiro says. “See how you feel, note your goals and then see what works best for you.”