Is dairy good or bad for you?

Is dairy good or bad for you?

Almond milk has never been more popular, what with healthy looking people on Instagram having almond lattes left right and centre. Yet health authorities still advise that you should be drinking 3 glasses of dairy milk per day for strong bones. What are you supposed to believe? Here’s a little Q&A to help make sense of it all.

No other species drinks the milk of another animal, why should I?
Fair question. But let’s reflect on this for a second. Do other species cook their food? Do other species use artificial lights when it goes dark? Do other species have a monetary system? Do other species watch TV, wear clothes or use dating apps?

Humans aren’t like other animals.

In fact, some of the things that we have done differently to non-human species has allowed us to evolve. For example, cooking food was a major turning point for human brain development. It’s not useful to look at other species for nutritional guidance. We’ve come too far to turn back now, guys.

I’ve heard that dairy gives you acne, is that true?
Dairy won’t necessarily give you acne, but there is some truth to this. There have been quite a few studies showing associations between a high dairy intake and acne. This relationship appears to be strongest with milk versus cheese or yoghurt. If you’re chugging a few glasses of milk per day and have severe acne, you might want to trial reducing or cutting out the milk for a month or two to see if this helps. 

I’ve heard that dairy gives you smelly farts, is that also true?
If you’re lactose intolerant, milk may trigger some unpleasant feelings in your gut. You may find that fermented dairy products as kefir, cheese, or small amounts of yoghurt are tolerable, as these are lower in lactose. 

So drinking milk can give you bad gas and acne. Dairy must be bad for you then?
Hold your horses. Dairy is a great source of calcium, vitamin b, phosphate, phosphorous, iodine and energy. 

Here’s a fun fact. Research has found that a glass of milk following exercise is far superior to most sports drinks – providing optimal hydration, electrolytes and protein for muscle recovery.

Gross. Milk is the last thing I feel like after a workout. If dairy is so amazing, why are so many people intolerant to it?
Interestingly, the ability to digest dairy started as a genetic mutation which offered a competitive advantage for survival. The mutation allowed for the production of lactase, an enzyme which breaks down lactose – the main sugar in dairy products.

This is why many North American and European individuals are capable of digesting dairy foods and have been doing so for a few thousand years. Many Asian and African populations remain lactose intolerant. I guess that’s just a result of them never needing dairy to survive.

I don’t really like dairy. If 75% of the world’s population can survive without it, surely I can?
You certainly can. You don’t need dairy. In western countries, dairy is included as a recommended food group because it is a powerhouse of nutrients. Most people in western countries don’t eat the recommended serve of vegetables, wholegrains or fruit. Instead, we eat a nutrient deficient diet, high in meat and processed foods. 

Dairy offers an easy way to get nutrients that, realistically, most of the population wouldn’t get enough of unless they radically changed their diets. 

So, you can get the nutrients in dairy from other foods? 
Yes. Calcium is the main nutrient of concern, as this is required to prevent osteoporosis. Imagine this scenario; you’re in your senior years and you fall over. If you break your hip from this fall, your mobility and quality of life will be significantly affected. After a hip fracture, your chance of dying in the next year is increased by 90%. Yes, you heard me - 90%! This is why we want to preserve our bone density for as long as possible.

How do I increase my bone density?
You can increase your bone density up until the age of around 30. Once you reach 30, you slowly start to lose calcium from your bones. It’s inevitable that you’ll lose bone density, but eating calcium will reduce the rate of decline. Very low bone density is the defining feature of osteoporosis.

I’ve heard calcium doesn’t impact bone health and that it’s all a lie endorsed by dairy companies. Is that true?
A few recent studies have indicated that calcium intake has a very little impact on bone density. 

The problem with these studies is that they look at adult populations, and are often short-term. Your peak bone density is developed during childhood and adolescence, then (hopefully) maintained over a lifetime. To see the effect of calcium intake, it would be more telling to conduct studies looking at individuals from childhood to the grave. This kind of research is not easy to do.

Many observational studies have suggested that an increased intake of calcium as a child does have a positive impact on our peak bone density, and consequently our bone health in senior years. Furthermore, lactose intolerant children were found to be at higher risk of osteoporosis than those could digest lactose.

Well, I’m an adult now. The damage is done. How much calcium do I need and how do I get it?
Health authorities recommended that an adult consumes approximately 1000mg of calcium per day to keep bones and teeth strong. This may vary slightly depending on your age and gender. 

Here are some examples of what you could eat to get your 1000mg of calcium per day, with dairy:

  • 3 cups of milk;

  • 3 tubs of yoghurt;

  • or 5 slices of cheddar cheese. 

And without dairy:

  • 1 cup of canned sardines or salmon (must contain bones);

  • 375 almonds;

  • 10 cups of cooked spinach (oxalates mean we only absorb half of the calcium in spinach);

  • or 20 cups of cooked broccoli.

Heck, are you mad? That’s a lot of almonds. Cooked spinach is naff. Let’s not even mention canned salmon. I’m not feeling confident I can do this without dairy.
If you give up dairy but don’t replace it with lots of nutritious, calcium-containing foods, then I do worry for you. However, if you maintain a healthy diet with LOTS of vegetables, seeds, nuts and wholegrains, I believe it is possible to get the calcium you need in your diet without dairy. 

Thankfully, many whole foods contain a small amount of calcium. With a diet packed full of colourful, fresh, whole foods, your calcium intake can add up across the day. 

Are milk alternatives better for you than dairy milk though?
If we’re talking about bone health, then… no. Milk alternatives generally do not contain much calcium at all. Some are ‘fortified’ with calcium, which basically means that the manufacturers add in a calcium supplement. I’m not a big fan of supplements. You can read more about this here.

Milk alternatives tend to be lower in saturated fat and calories, however. If you’re trying to lose weight, or heart disease is a concern for you, these may be a good option. Try to find one without too many additives.

Does cooking food destroy the calcium in it?

Are you sure I’m going to be okay?
There are some things you can for your bone health in addition to maintaining a healthy diet. 

  1. A greater muscle mass is linked to increased bone density. You can build or maintain your muscle mass by doing strength-based exercises such as weight lifting or resistance workouts. Make sure you are working your glutes and back muscles to keep that spine lookin’ fine! 

  2. Studies have also suggested that impact exercises (think running, jumping, etc.) may send a message to our bones, telling them to hold onto their strength. We can’t technically make our bones stronger after age 30, but anything we can do to maintain their strength is a good thing.

  3. Make sure you get out in the sun every day for 20 minutes in the winter and 10 minutes in summer. Expose as much skin as possible. This will keep your vitamin D levels in check – extremely important for bone health.

  4. Avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time as eating. These inhibit your absorption of calcium from food. If your only source of calcium is the milk you add to tea or coffee, you may be in trouble.

  5. Don’t smoke or drink too much booze. Both of these habits can reduce your bone density over time.

I drive to work every day in the sun, does this count towards my vitamin D?
No. Vitamin D can’t travel through glass. It can’t travel through sunscreen either. 

I hope this helps you on your bone education journey. Stay strong (boned), my beautiful friends. 

Lucy x


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Adebamowo, C. A., Spiegelman, D., Danby, F. W., Frazier, A. L., Willett, W. C., & Holmes, M. D. (2005). High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology52(2), 207-214. 

Ulvestad, M., Bjertness, E., Dalgard, F., & Halvorsen, J. A. (2017). Acne and dairy products in adolescence: results from a Norwegian longitudinal study. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology31(3), 530-535.

Juhl, C., Bergholdt, H., Miller, I., Jemec, G., Kanters, J., & Ellervik, C. (2018). Dairy Intake and Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 78,529 Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults. Nutrients10(8), 1049. 

Tai, V., Leung, W., Grey, A., Reid, I. R., & Bolland, M. J. (2015). Calcium intake and bone mineral density: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bmj351, h4183.

Laird, E., Molloy, A. M., McNulty, H., Ward, M., McCarroll, K., Hoey, L., ... & Casey, M. C. (2017). Greater yogurt consumption is associated with increased bone mineral density and physical function in older adults. Osteoporosis International28(8), 2409-2419.

Feskanich, D., Meyer, H. E., Fung, T. T., Bischoff-Ferrari, H. A., & Willett, W. C. (2018). Milk and other dairy foods and risk of hip fracture in men and women. Osteoporosis International29(2), 385-396.

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