Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
Is Dairy Good for You?
“Should I be drinking cow milk?” a class member asked Jane last week.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes. Well then should I be drinking skim, 1%, 2% or whole milk? I am so confused. Everyone is saying different things!”
“Listen to your body. It has the capacity to tell you what it needs.”
The problem is that we receive so many mixed messages, even mandates, from so many outside sources that we stop looking inward for the answers.
For example, our government tells us we need 3 servings of low or non-fat dairy each day.
The dairy industry has convinced us that if we don’t drink our milk we will have weak bones.
Medical studies here in the U.S. and abroad show that these recommendations have no scientific basis.
In response to many of your questions via our website and in our seminars, I will address the important question of dairy and our health.
Dairy is certainly a very controversial topic and the scientific data are not yet clear if dairy is disease causing or disease preventing.
Let me share with you what we DO know and what we do NOT know about dairy, along with my recommendations, based on the scientific data available at this time.
My Dairy Story
I grew up with the typical American lifestyle. My parents encouraged me to drink milk with every meal. I thought that milk would help me grow strong bones and I drank huge quantities of it.
As I got older I began struggling with digesting my dairy. Sometimes I would have a bowl of cereal with milk and then have my stomach become bloated and hurt for hours. As I became more and more lactose intolerant I gradually stopped drinking milk but I still had my daily slice of pizza.
Eventually, as many of you know, by my mid-40s I found myself overweight with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I also had developed a severe case of eosinophilic esophagitis from a food allergy and an autoimmune disease.
The eosinophilic esophagitis was so bad, that at times the only thing I could keep from getting stuck in my throat were liquids. This was something that developed at a young age and only seemed to get worse with time.
It was in this health crisis that I completely changed my diet. Knowing that dairy is one of the major causes of food allergies, I cut out the dairy along with the wheat flour, sugar, and processed foods. I also quadrupled my vegetable intake and started eating nuts, seeds, and beans or lentils every day.
I’m not exactly sure what my food allergy was, but my 30+ year history of eosinophilic esophagitis completely went away along with being overweight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and autoimmune disease.
Through this experience, I was left with the question, is dairy good for you?
Will dairy strengthen my bones?
With the aggressive advertising, the dairy industry attempts to convince us that if we don’t dutifully eat our 3 servings of dairy each day we will have weak bones.
According to the Nurses Health Study involving 77,761 people, dairy did not protect against fractures. Conversely, those who ate the most dairy were most at risk from bone fractures.
In fact, study after study has shown that the risk of a bone fracture is much LOWER in countries like Japan or China, where they rarely eat dairy, than in the US. Could dairy actually be putting us more at risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures? At a minimum, it is clear that dairy is not a requirement for healthy strong bones.
Will dairy make me gain weight and become inflamed?
We know that weight gain and inflammation are among the major causes of chronic medical conditions. Indeed, heart disease, dementia, and cancer can all be caused by being overweight and inflamed.
Does dairy contribute to this problem?
While well-known doctors, such as Dr. Mark Hyman, have argued that dairy is a big cause of inflammation and weight gain, the overall body of published medical literature do not yet support this view.
Some studies do indeed suggest that dairy increases weight gain and inflammation whereas other studies report the opposite. Until we see a preponderance of data going one way or the other, I am going to keep an open mind about the role of dairy in obesity and inflammation.
Gut Flora and Dairy
A diet high in dairy can have a fast and significant impact on gut flora. After just two days of meat and dairy, we can quickly switch our gut bacteria to more bile loving bacteria such as Bilophila and Bactericides. Bilophila has been associated with inflammation and gastrointestinal problems and Bacteroides has been associated with weight gain.
The ideal gut flora that promotes maintenance of a healthy weight is one where Firmicutes dominates. This gut flora is found with diets high in plant-based foods.
The best dairy for our guts may be yogurt with live bacterial cultures. Probiotics have been associated with healthier gut flora.
Will dairy raise my cholesterol and cause heart disease?
While it has long been known that dairy can raise cholesterol levels, does this translate into more heart attacks? While the data are not enitrely clear, at this time it does not appear that dairy increases the risk of heart disease.
Does dairy increase my risk of cancer?
This has been an area of intense research. The strongest link appears to be with dairy and prostate cancer. For example, in the Physicians’ Health Study of 20,885 male physicians, researchers found a 32% increased risk of prostate cancer in people who ate 2.5 or more servings of dairy each day.
For women the link between dairy and cancer is not as strong. However, one study of 90,655 women did link high fat dairy products with breast cancer.
Should I eat full fat or low fat dairy?
Thanks to the anti-fat movements of the 1980s, full fat dairy has almost been wiped out of our grocery stores. However, recent data suggests that ironically higher fat dairy may actually be better than low fat dairy in preventing weight gain.
Dairy Contaminants and Organic Dairy Products
Unfortunately, dairy can be a significant source of contaminants and toxins in our bodies. Too often cows are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones which can alter our own hormones, metabolism, and gut flora. Also, PCBs and dioxins, which are known to cause cancer, are frequently found in dairy.
Many of these contaminants have prompted savvy consumers to turn to organic dairy products to avoid the hormones and antibiotics. Unfortunately, the higher heat pasteurization process used for organic dairy products may have unintended nutritional and/or health effects.
Unexplained Medical Conditions and Dairy
Often times people have unexplained medical conditions that their doctors cannot figure out. Despite thousands and thousands of dollars worth of medical tests, no one can seem to figure out what is going on.
In situations such as these, it is worth considering food allergies. The two biggest causes of food allergies are wheat and dairy. I have seen many cases where unexplained medical conditions have mysteriously resolved when the offending food item was removed from the diet.
My Assessment of Dairy
To get back to our original question, is dairy good for you, dairy is certainly controversial and we do not yet have clear answers. The bottom line is that if you don’t like dairy there is no need to eat it. Conversely, if you love dairy, there is no need to stop. Dairy is a personal decision.
1. There is no clear proof that dairy will strengthen your bones.
2. There is no scientific basis to our government’s recommendations that we must eat 3 servings of low or non-fat dairy each day.
3. We do not know if dairy is disease causing or disease preventing.
4. The best dairy is probably yogurt with live bacterial cultures.
5. We do not know if full fat or low fat dairy is best.
6. Dairy is a significant cause of food allergies.
7. Dairy is a personal decision.
The bottom line: if you like dairy, enjoy it. If you do not like dairy, you do not need to feel compelled to consume it to maintain your health. If you have specific questions about dairy and your own personal health, please talk to your physician.
How do you feel about dairy? Do you feel better with dairy in or out of your diet?
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.