Pros and Cons of Dairy

A bunch of people tell us that dairy products are good for us. We also hear from a number of people that dairy products are bad for us. Who should we believe, and why?

Here’s a Q & A that might help us make a decision about this, if we haven’t already done so.

Should I give up dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and yogurt?

It sounds like it ought to be a simple yes-or-no question. But like so many health and nutrition issues, rarely is the answer found at either extreme. Let’s look for the middle ground and dig deeper.

I know dairy is great for growing youngsters. But I’m fully grown. Does that mean adults get no health benefits?

Hardly. There is growing evidence that Vitamin D, often added to milk, can help reduce cancer risk. Also, milk is a good source of potassium, something of which most Americans don’t get enough.

Combine low potassium with too much sodium and you have the risk factors for high blood pressure. Critics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended dietary levels of potassium counter that the same benefits could be achieved by consuming less sodium. But that’s a challenge because sodium is such a common preservative in processed food.

Why the concern about adults getting more potassium from milk?

Because the benefit comes with high calories. Full-fat dairy products contain a significant amount of saturated fat. But eaten in moderation and as part of a balanced diet, dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt provide essential nutrients including protein, calcium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium and Vitamins A, B2 and B12. Low-fat alternatives can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet without weight gain.

Are there negative side effects to regularly eating dairy?

Dairy can be pro-inflammatory for many people. The classic symptoms of dairy sensitivity are increased mucus, leading to sinus congestion and respiratory problems; digestive distress, such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation; and skin problems.

How common is dairy intolerance?

The way milk in dairy products is produced and processed (the hormones, antibiotics and pasteurization/homogenization) makes cow’s milk harder to digest. Also, over time we produce less of the enzyme lactase, which digests the lactose in milk. However, lactose-free dairy products are now readily available.

Should people who show signs of lactose intolerance eliminate all dairy? 

The degree of lactose intolerance varies, and most people do not require a completely lactose-free diet. Even children and teens with primary lactose intolerance can usually consume eight to 12 ounces of milk without experiencing symptoms.

What’s the bottom line on dairy?

Consuming dairy is a personal choice. Don’t cut it completely from your diet just to do it. There are too many nutrients at stake. A cup or two of milk or equivalent dairy is fine. If you feel you might be experiencing low-grade symptoms of dairy allergy or intolerance, cut dairy from your diet for two to three weeks and observe how your body reacts.

For the lactose intolerant, and for people who choose not to consume dairy, the key is substituting other sources of calcium such as collards, spinach, bok choy, beans, and calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk, and vegetables. Meet your potassium needs through tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, bananas, oranges, and other fruits and vegetables.


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