By Barbara Broggelwirth, RDN, CDN
The short answer is NO. There is not enough scientific evidence to support the claim that dairy foods cause inflammation in the body. Furthermore, there are decades of research that do support the role of dairy in a healthy diet. However, according to various social media posts, eliminating dairy is emerging as a new health trend. This article will explore the topic in order to provide additional insight.
What is inflammation anyway?
Inflammation is our body’s way to help us recover from an illness or injury. It can be categorized as either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation occurs when our immune system is fighting off bacteria or an infection in order to heal and can be characterized by either fever or swelling. Chronic inflammation is as systemic attack on healthy cells which can lead to many disease states; heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and gastrointestinal disorders to name a few.
Is all dairy considered equal?
Well, it’s complicated. Dairy is a large category, which can make it difficult to make generalizations and draw conclusions. For instance, fermented products like yogurt and kefir are anti-inflammatory whereas products high in saturated fat, such as cheeses and ice cream, may promote inflammation. This isn’t because they are dairy foods, per se, but rather because saturated fats are known to promote inflammation and naturally fermented products like yogurt and kefir contain probiotics that are anti-inflammatory. Therefore, it is the individual components that make up the dairy product that determine whether it is pro- or anti-inflammatory, not just the dairy category.
With that said, many of us know someone who avoids dairy for one reason or another. Therefore, it may be helpful to clarify the difference between a true milk allergy, lactose intolerance, and the possible link between acne and dairy intake. A true milk allergy is an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to the proteins in milk. In some cases it can lead to anaphylaxis, and can be life threatening. In contrast, lactose intolerance occurs in individuals who do not produce the enzyme lactase needed to properly break down lactose. This can result in digestive distress. Regarding consumption of dairy products and acne, the theory is that when milk products are combined with high levels of refined foods, they disrupt insulin levels, which make skin more prone to acne. There currently is not enough evidence to determine whether this is a causation or correlation, so an individualized approach would be most appropriate. True inflammation, on the other hand, is characterized by an increase in inflammatory markers in the body, which can be measured with a blood test.
The bottom line:
Milk and some dairy products can serve as a very efficient way to meet calcium and vitamin D needs, as well as provide a high quality protein. If you are concerned about inflammation, a better goal would be to consume foods high in antioxidants, which can help prevent damage from free radicals in the body. Focus on eating what comes from the earth rather than out of a box. In terms of healthy dietary patterns to follow, the Mediterranean diet, the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet, and the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet all focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables with lean proteins and whole grains and are the cornerstones of a healthy dietary pattern.
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Mayo Clinic. (2019). Milk allergy – Symptoms and causes. [online] Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/milk-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20375101 [Accessed 10 Jan. 2019].
HealthyEating.org. (2019). Nutrients in Milk + Health Benefits of Milk + Nutrients in Different Types of Milk; sugar in milk. [online] Available at: https://www.healthyeating.org/Milk-Dairy/Nutrients-in-Milk-Cheese-Yogurt/Nutrients-in-Milk [Accessed 10 Jan. 2019].
Nutrition, D. (2019). Is There a Link Between Acne and Milk Products? Summary of Evidence | Dairy Nutrition. [online] Dairynutrition.ca. Available at: https://www.dairynutrition.ca/scientific-evidence/roles-on-certain-health-conditions/is-there-a-link-between-acne-and-milk-products-summary-of-evidence [Accessed 10 Jan. 2019].
Barbara Broggelwirth is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is currently working with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients. She works with patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.