Chronic inflammation has been linked to a variety of serious health conditions, including heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and depression. With this, it makes sense to want to do what you can to reduce your risk of body inflammation.
Although research in this area is ongoing, there is one food group that is commonly associated with inflammation: dairy products. But does dairy cause inflammation, or is it just another health myth? Dietitians and a gastroenterologist explain it.
Meet the experts: Rudolph Bedford, MD, is a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California; Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, is a nutritionist and personal trainer, and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab; Scott Keatley, RD, is a nutritionist and co-owner of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy
Do dairy products cause inflammation?
It’s important to make this clear up front: Unless you’re allergic to dairy, there is no research to suggest that dairy causes inflammation in the body. “I’ve heard claims that dairy causes inflammation, and from a scientific standpoint, that’s not the case,” says Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Some studies suggest that dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt can actually lower your risk of body inflammation.
However, not all dairy products are equal, says Scott Keatley, RD, co-owner of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “With diet and inflammation, what we’re most concerned about are these things called advanced glycation end products (AGEs),” he says. “These occur when proteins or fats combine with sugar in the blood. Since we all have sugar in our blood all the time, EFAs can occur when we eat anything with fat or protein, which is pretty much it.
Milk straight from the cow has EFAs “but the levels are much lower than, say, roasted vegetables,” says Keatley. Dairy products such as condensed and evaporated milk and hard or mature cheeses may have more AGEs than others, he said. “Fermented products like yogurt and kefir contain compounds that lower these EFAs,” adds Keatley.
To make things even more confusing, “the byproducts of products that produce EFAs can influence your gut bacteria to release anti-inflammatory compounds into the bloodstream,” says Keatley, so dairy could potentially canceling out in your gut.
The biggest potential inflammatory problem with dairy is fat and weight gain, says Keatley. Since obesity is considered an inflammatory disease, consuming too many calories from dairy could potentially increase your body inflammation, but this shouldn’t be a problem if you’re aware of the amount from your food group, says- he.
There are caveats, of course. If you have a dairy intolerance or allergy, it’s possible that dairy is causing body inflammation in you, says nutritionist and personal trainer Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab. (More on how to determine if this describes you in a moment.)
How do you know if you have a dairy allergy or intolerance?
True allergies to dairy and milk are more common in children than adults, but it is possible to have a dairy allergy as an adult. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma Immunology (ACAAI), symptoms of a milk allergy may include:
However, dairy intolerance is more common, especially as you get older, says Dr. Bedford. The disease occurs when you have too little of an enzyme called lactase in your small intestine, making it difficult to fully digest the sugar (lactose) found in milk, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“If you have an intolerance, you may experience bloating, abdominal discomfort, gas, and a risk of diarrhea shortly after drinking or ingesting a dairy product,” says Dr. Bedford.
What to watch out for if you avoid dairy products
Dairy-free diets are relatively common, but dietitians say there are a few nutrients to be especially aware of if you’re avoiding this food group. “Dairy products are a primary source of calcium and vitamin D for many,” says Keatley. “If someone chooses to exclude dairy, they should make sure they are getting these nutrients from other sources like fortified plant milks, leafy greens or fish. Monitoring protein and vitamin B12 intake, especially for vegetarians, is also essential.
Dairy products can also be a good source of protein, says Matheny. “Most people don’t get enough protein,” he adds. If you’re considering stopping dairy, he recommends just making sure you’re supplementing that protein with others, like meat, nuts, and seeds.
If you are concerned that dairy products may be a problem for you, consult your doctor. They should be able to offer you personalized advice to help you take the next steps. But if you haven’t noticed any symptoms from eating dairy, experts say you don’t need to worry about the risk of developing body inflammation.
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