Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
You may have noticed some of today’s most popular diets and social media influencers strongly suggest that ditching dairy does the body good. One of the major reasons you’re told that you need to spike your morning coffee with oat milk and learn to live with (but not necessarily enjoy) moo-free cheese? Dairy is cited as one of the leading dietary causes of inflammation.
If you’re worried about inflammation, this can make dropping coconut yogurt into your shopping cart seem like an easy decision. After all, it’s now known that chronic inflammation in the body can drive up the risk for a whole host of health woes including heart disease and cognitive decline. But here’s the curious thing: Nutrition research doesn’t appear to support the dogma that the various guises of dairy are pro-inflammatory. And anecdotal evidence doesn’t seem toto parallel the science.
So, does drinking dairy-rich milk and enjoying creamy cheeses made from cow’s milk pose a threat to your health? Will you stoke the flames of inflammation if you aren’t giving up dairy? Here’s what science has to say.
A milky way
A recently released systematic study review shows consuming dairy appears to have a neutral impact on inflammation at worst – and at best, it could even help tame the flame.
For the investigation in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers analyzed 27 previous trials that focused on the impact that various types of dairy have on inflammatory markers – items such as C-reactive protein that are a tip-off to higher inflammation within the body. Dairy consumption included milk, yogurt, cheese and proteins from milk, including casein and whey. None of the studies included in the analysis suggested that consuming dairy or its isolated proteins (including whey protein) increases inflammation like many in the anti-dairy camp want us to believe.
In fact, some of the studies included in the review reported a reduction in at least one biomarker of inflammation.
This isn’t the first time dairy has exhibited a neutral or anti-inflammatory effect in the literature. A report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics involving women aged 50 to 79 discovered that “greater total dairy intake (regardless of fat content), total cheese, full-fat cheese, and yogurt were consistently associated with lower concentrations of glucose, insulin, and C-reactive protein.” The latter is a sign of less inflammation in the body. However, the study authors note that milk and butter were not associated with these biomarkers.
Additionally, a 2019 review found similar results to the aforementioned study, reporting that consumption of milk or dairy products was not linked to greater inflammation in healthy subjects, people who are overweight or obese, or those with metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes. And a look back at over 50 previous clinical trials found that both low- and full-fat dairy products, as well as fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, tend to display anti-inflammatory activity.
The good news seems to extend to younger generations too: An investigation in the journal Nutrients determined that total dairy, cheese and yogurt consumption wasn’t associated with a rise in inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6) in school children. The nutrition matrix of dairy, which includes amino acids, minerals, vitamins and various other bioactive compounds, might be what places dairy in the clear when it comes to inflammation.
What you need to know about dairy and inflammation
Although it appears dairy, in general, is off the hook for inflaming the body, not all of this food group is likely so benign.
High-sugar options such as chocolate milk and flavored yogurts could be problematic, as taking in too much added sugar can drive up inflammation. It’s always best to select plain versions of dairy for better health. Opt for milk and its ilk sourced from grass-fed cows, since these products have been tested to contain higher amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats as well as a few other important nutrients like iron and vitamin E than those produced using conventional methods.
There’s also the chance that certain forms of dairy are better at combating inflammation than others. For instance, fermented options like yogurt and kefir can contribute to higher levels of beneficial bacteria in our guts that, in turn, can help combat inflammation. Glistening cheese on pizza most certainly will not. Ultimately, we still need more data on which types of dairy and in what amounts are the best when it comes to inflammation.
Of course, if you have a true dairy allergy, you shouldn’t eat dairy-containing foods, as that can raise inflammation in the body. And perhaps even less serious intolerances to items in dairy like lactose or A1 beta-casein could turn dairy into a pro-inflammatory food for you.
The bottom line
All signs point to dairy being a case of mistaken identity when it comes to pro-inflammatory foods. So, if you’re still a dairy-lover, keep your eye on the big-picture. Eat mostly whole foods low in added sugars, maintain a healthy weight, manage stress, get enough sleep, and incorporate other anti-inflammatory lifestyle choices into your days.
And by all means, enjoy that breakfast bowl of Greek yogurt and dusting of Parmesan on your pasta.
Keep reading to learn more about fighting inflammation: