When we were kids, we were told to drink our milk for healthy teeth and bones. Now, dairy is something of a “devil” in the food world because many people cannot digest it properly. We pull apart both sides of the dairy debate to ask: Do we really need it?
Much like gluten, dairy has devoted fans and critics who won’t touch it. It’s a hotly contested topic of discussion and, as such, there is a bit of an information overload out there for someone who just wants to know the facts.
In a nutshell, both sides of the dairy debate have valid points. For some people, dairy products are staple items in their diet because of their nutrients and health benefits. However, it’s also been given a bad name because many people can’t digest it properly, which can lead to bloating, indigestion and feeling unwell. What’s more, a lot of people are lactose-sensitive — not lactose-intolerant — which means that they can eat some dairy and feel fine, but need to avoid others. We’ve combed through huge amounts of information to answer the real question: Do we need dairy in our diets?
Good source of protein
One of the biggest nutritional benefits of dairy products is that they contain high-quality protein. While the same protein can be found in white and red meat, dairy is a great alternative source of protein for vegeterians. Dairy products are usually cheaper than meat, so they can also be a good way for your family to get a regular protein fix without breaking the bank.
Super rich in calcium
It turns out that those childhood mantras do have some truth to them. Dairy, especially milk, is very high in calcium, which helps bone health and can reduce the chance of osteoporosis later down the track. Calcium has also been linked to lower blood pressure and, if consumed in moderation, can protect against the kind of severe weight gain that leads to obesity. You can also get calcium from leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli, but you would have to eat a lot more to match up to that found in a glass of milk.
Stacked with vitamin D
Interestingly, dairy products are a major source of vitamin D — but it’s not natural. In fact, many governments around the world mandate that milk and dairy products be fortified with vitamin D to make up for the fact that most of us just aren’t getting enough. While this is a major plus for dairy, it shouldn’t be the only reason why you’re heading for the supermarket fridge: Many soy and alternative milk products also contain high levels of D.
Plenty of low-fat varieties
If staying slim is your priority, the good news is that there are heaps of low-fat and skim dairy brands and products on the market. If you’re on a weight loss mission or prefer low-fat foods, choose products such as skim milk and cottage cheese, and avoid full-cream milk and yoghurt, butter and cheeses such as brie. All in all, dairy can definitely form part of a healthy, balanced diet but, as always, moderation is key.
Laden with calories
Most of the delicious dairy products — think cheese and ice cream — are very high in fat and can sabotage your diet efforts. When consumed in its whole-fat state, milk and milk products can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. However, this isn’t a reason to ditch dairy completely: These health effects come about when people eat large amounts of full-fat products, so stick to skim and you should be fine.
May contain hormones
It’s no secret that farmed animals are fed hormones to increase their lifespan and ensure they don’t get diseases. It makes sense, then, that the hormones from cows can pass into their milk and into any products made from that milk. In Australia, the sad truth is that we are already exposed to hormones and pesticides from meat, fruit and vegetables, so if this is something you’re concerned about, cutting out dairy is something you can control.
Doesn’t sit well with many people
Dairy products contain lactose, a type of sugar in milk that many people have difficulty digesting. These sufferers are “lactose-intolerant” or “lactose-sensitive”, but the problem is that many people aren’t diagnosed — they just feel sick after eating dairy and can’t pinpoint why. Around 15 per cent of the population is lactose-intolerant, and they often experience bloating and fullness a long time after they’ve eaten. Also, many babies and some adults are allergic to milk, which can lead to ear infections, skin rashes and, of course, digestive problems. As a general rule, lactose-intolerant people can handle around 240ml of dairy daily — yoghurt with live cultures is the best choice — while those who are allergic should avoid it altogether.
The verdict? Dairy is not vital.
From a nutritional point of view, the fact is there are other ways to get protein, calcium and vitamin D besides milk. So as long as you have a healthy, balanced diet and you’re getting these crucial nutrients from other foods, there really is no reason to consume dairy. Before you swear off dairy forever, it’s also important to remember that dairy is fine — if you can tolerate it. Just keep the soft cheeses to a minimum and eat it in the same way as you would (or should) eat chocolate — in moderation!
If dairy is a no-go for one reason or another, there are plenty of other options available. Soy, rice and goat’s milk all have a reasonably low-fat content and are loaded with nutrients, making them great alternatives to cow’s milk.