Dairy has been controversial in recent years, with many online articles listing reasons why it’s an unhealthy diet choice. In this article we’ll weigh up the health pros and cons of consuming dairy foods to give a balanced perspective and help you make a decision on whether dairy is right for you.


Dairy Foods and Nutrients

Dairy foods are a rich source of calcium and protein. Calcium is vital for strong bones and teeth, and the calcium in milk and dairy is especially valuable as it’s usually easily absorbed by your body. Protein is essential for muscle building, growth and repair of your body’s wear and tear.

For those who choose dairy-free or minimal dairy diets, calcium can alternately be found in leafy green vegetables, soya beans, tofu and nuts. Protein can be sourced from meat or from vegetarian alternatives including pulsesnuts and seeds, tofu and mycoprotein.

Dairy is also rich in Vitamin D, an essential nutrient needed for healthy bones and teeth, as well as muscle development. The body’s main source of Vitamin D is created in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight, but in winter months or when you spend a lot of time indoors, it’s important to supplement this with dietary sources such as dairy or Vitamin D supplements.

Other non-dairy dietary sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver and fortified cereals.


Dairy Foods and Fat

Some dairy foods, such as full cream milk, butter and cream can contain high levels of fat. Fat isn’t all bad- in milk, it contains essential fat soluble nutrients like Vitamin B2 and B12.

However a high fat diet is also high in energy, which can contribute to obesity. Obesity can put you at an elevated risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. The NHS recommends if you’re trying to cut down your fat intake, to choose low-fat dairy foods like skimmed milk. These contain the same nutrients as unskimmed, but less fat.

Cheese is another food that can be high in fat – most varieties of cheese contain from 20 to 40g of fat in each hundred grams. A food is defined as high fat if its total fat content is above 17.5g per 100g.

One long term study showed that diets containing more vegetable fats and poly-unsaturated fats instead of dairy fats are associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease.


Dairy Foods and Salt

Some processed dairy foods can contain high levels of sodium (defined as more than 1.5g of salt per 100g). An excess of salt in the diet can be a factor contributing to hypertension(high blood pressure), which increases your risks of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

The NHS recommends you eat no more than 2.4g of sodium daily (equal to 6g of table salt). To cut down, make sure to check the label of dairy foods such as cheese and be aware of how much salt you are consuming.


Dairy Foods and Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance, where the body has a reduced ability to digest lactose ( a milk sugar) is found in around 65% of the population worldwide, and is more common in those of East Asian ancestry. If after consuming dairy foods you find you’re experiencing cramps, bloating or diarrhoea, you may be lactose intolerant, in which case you should consult your GP for more information.


So Are Dairy Foods Healthy?

Dairy foods can be a healthy addition to the diet, but it depends on your personal circumstances and health situation. They contain essential nutrients including calcium and vitamin D, but these can also be found in other dietary sources. For those trying to lose weight, dairy can be high in fat and energy, so you may choose to avoid or minimize it. Many people are simply lactose intolerant, and so can’t eat large amounts of dairy. If you’re considering making dietary changes, be sure to consult your GP so you can work out what’s best for you.