Food science and nutrition are rapidly evolving. Anti-inflammatory diets, like paleo and Whole 30 ban entire groups of foods because they “increase inflammation”. One of the primary criminals is dairy. Cheese, yogurt, and milk are “the bad guys” in the modern dieting world. They cause pain, acne, and even cancer! But, food science is new, and often the research struggles to catch up. So, I seek to answer the question once and for all, is dairy inflammatory?
A Note About Evolution
Firstly, we have to understand dairy consumption within the context of evolution. Why? Because drinking dairy products into adulthood is a relatively recent human adaptation!
Dairy contains a sugar called lactose. Many people are lactose intolerant. People who are lactose intolerant lack the enzyme lactase, which allows us to digest the lactose in dairy products. Unfortunately, up to 65% of adult humans cannot digest lactose.
The lactase enzyme, and ability to digest dairy products, first evolved in Central Europe 7,500 years ago!
Moreover, the ability to drink milk and consume dairy products ensures our ancestors could consume enough vitamin D! Vitamin D is critical for fertility and preventing a bone disease known as rickets. When humans first migrated to Europe, the lack of sunlight made it difficult for them to absorb Vitamin D from the sun.
Dairy provided the vitamin D necessary for early Europeans to survive and procreate.
Therefore, the lactase enzyme is critical to human evolution, especially in Europe. This also explains why most Europeans can drink milk with no problems, whereas many other continents cannot.
Is Dairy Inflammatory? Many Diets Say Yes!
As we addressed above, dairy consumption is a relatively recent adaptation. Moreover, the majority of adults worldwide are lactose intolerant.
Therefore, it makes sense to assume that milk products are not that healthy.
The paleolithic diet states that foods after the paleolithic era should be avoided. Milk products are too recent and should be avoided. (So should wheat products, if you were wondering.)
The Whole 30 diet seeks to reduce inflammation. Therefore, dairy is out. In the Whole 30 diets, we are also asked to avoid beans and legumes.
Dairy is “the cause behind rashes and acne”. Some argue that it can raise the risk of cancer.
However, many of these diets are new! While the crash diet courses of the ’80s and ’90s are written off as restrictive and damaging, modern dieting trends are not scrutinized the same way.
Many trends claim they are not restrictive, but a lifestyle. They argue that this is the way humans used to eat, and therefore it’s natural to avoid X, Y, and Z.
Firstly, if you want to learn more about how to spot dangerous fad diets, you can read my article here.
Secondly, the diets that have gained popularity recently have not been studied by dieticians and nutritionists. Scientists have not explored the long-term effects. The evidence is anecdotal and hearsay. I am not arguing that there is no value to these diets. However, we should listen to their proponents with a grain of salt.
Every person is different. The diet that works for you, may not work for your best friend. One population may benefit from restricting carbs, another may not.
As Barry Glassner says in my earlier article, we should enjoy what we are eating. We can focus on healthier choices afterward.
So Back To Dairy. What’s The Truth?
Before I debunk some myths, I would like to make a note.
A significant portion of the world’s population cannot digest dairy due to lactose sugar. People can also have dairy allergies. Finally, some do not like or choose not to consume dairy. That is okay, and the following research (while interesting) does not apply to everyone. Diet is personal. The choices that make you feel comfortable in your body are infinitely more important than whatever I write here.
On that same note, if you are avoiding dairy because someone on Pinterest told you so, I will break down the scientific research about dairy and its value to our diet.
Does Dairy Cause Acne?
Surely, dairy does cause acne? I myself have cut down on milk products to manage a breakout. I know many people who have done the same. And? The breakouts do go away afterwards!
Surprisingly, scientists have never proven there is a connection between acne and diet.
In a study by LaRosa and colleagues, they found that total dairy intake did not increase the number of acne breakouts. Interestingly, when teenagers drank skim or low-fat milk, that did increase the risk of a breakout significantly! Full-fat products did not increase the risk of acne.
What does this tell us? In skim or low-fat products, the sugar content increases. Therefore, if teens experience more acne breakouts when drinking skim milk, they are likely reacting to the increased sugar. Not the dairy.
Wow, right? I know I was surprised to read those findings.
Dairy Intake & Cancer Risk
Advocates for various anti-dairy diets may claim that milk products increase the risk of cancer. I wanted to explore this risk. I did not assess ALL the different cancers out there. Instead, I focused on two specific topics.
Dairy & Breast Cancer
Knekt and colleagues analyzed the relationship between dairy and breast cancer in a sample of 4,697 women over a 15-year period.
When we read scientific articles, sample size and time are huge indicators of the reliability of the study! Therefore, The researchers’ study is effective because of their large sample size and the length of time.
At a 25-year follow-up, 88 women had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, the researchers compared cancer incidence to milk consumption rates.
What did they find?
When participants drank more milk, their risk for cancer decreased!
What? That’s insane! Drinking milk can decrease the risk of breast cancer? Why has nobody told me this before?
The only affiliation that is listed for this research study, is the National Public Health Institute of Finland. Why is affiliation important? For example, a dairy company may intentionally skew results to increase milk consumption. On the other hand, a public health organization seeks to prevent illnesses in the population. The National Public Health Institute of Finland gains nothing by publishing these results.
In short, I am comfortable accepting the results and sharing them with you! People who consume more milk have a lower risk of breast cancer.
Colorectal Cancer and Milk Products
In the second study, Norat and Riboli review research on the relationship between dairy and colorectal cancer. Therefore, we must ensure they are giving credence to both sides of the argument.
The researchers begin by addressing that milk and other dairy products have some risk factors AND protective factors in their molecular makeup.
Calcium and vitamin D, two key nutrients in milk, are believed to protect against various cancers. The Lactobacilli in yogurt and fermented milk products may protect our intestines. On the other hand, fats can increase the risk of colon cancer.
So what is the truth? Norat and Riboli review different studies that observed groups over a long period of time. The researchers, in this case, are observing the relationship between milk products and colorectal cancer risk.
The researchers found interesting results when focused on milk consumption. Participants who consumed more homogenized milk had an increased risk of colon cancer. People who drank 2% or skim milk did not have an increased risk of cancer, and those who drank 2% milk experienced some protective benefits.
Thankfully, when analyzing cheese intake, there was no increased risk of colon cancer regardless of cheese consumption! Yay! I don’t think I could sacrifice my cheese. Likewise, yogurt does not increase or decrease cancer risk.
So, Is Dairy Inflammatory?
If dairy doesn’t cause acne, and dairy can protect against cancer, is dairy inflammatory? I seek to answer this question for myself, and for you, today.
Bordoni and colleagues wanted to clarify are dairy consumption was related to the increase in chronic, inflammatory diseases. In short, more people are experiencing diseases like fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis than ever before. These researchers want to understand if that is related to dairy.
However, after reviewing 52 different studies, Bordoni and colleagues conclude that dairy is anti-inflammatory. Say what? Dairy reduces inflammation (in those who can properly digest it).
If that seems too good to be true, I took the liberty of including ANOTHER article on the topic.
Panagiotakos and colleagues specifically analyzed anti-inflammatory properties related to heart disease. Once again, the researchers concluded that dairy consumption made less inflammation.
While more research it is needed, this is a refreshing change from the doom and gloom of many fad diets!
Dairy isn’t unhealthy. In fact, it can promote health and decrease risk of cancer and inflammation. How cool is that?
Is Dairy Inflammatory? NO!
After years of thinking that dairy was on its way out, I was fascinated to read these different studies. Moreover, as someone who grew up drinking a glass of milk a day, I was more than pleased!
Ultimately, dairy is jam-packed with nutrients! It is an excellent source of protein, vitamin D, calcium, and Vitamin A.
People, especially in Europe and North America, have evolved to drink milk. In India, dairy is a key part of many dishes. Countless cultures around the world consume yogurt and cheese!
We do not need milk, that is true. It is also true that many people cannot drink milk, whether by choice or genes.
However, the propaganda can stop! Milk and dairy products are healthy. In many ways, they are more than just healthy and actually protect our health long-term.
On the other hand, as I say in all my articles, diet is individual. Enjoying what you eat and drink is far more important than following a strict set of rules. Fruits and vegetables are important, but so is protein!
Don’t discount milk products just because someone on the internet told you to. If you notice that milk and dairy leave you bloated, gassy, or aggravate skin problems, there is nothing wrong with cutting it out.
However, dairy, on its own, is not a villain. It plays an important role, and I for one, am going to pour myself a tall glass of milk!
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