26th May, 20204 min read

Is dairy good or bad for you?

Is dairy good or bad for you?
Medical reviewer: Healthily's medical team
Author: Meera Senthilingam
Last reviewed: 27/05/2020
Medically reviewed

Low-fat dairy and dairy-free diets continue to rise in popularity, and you only need to go to your local supermarket to see this for yourself.

More and more people are making changes to the levels of dairy in their diet and this comes down to many factors, but 3 key ones are lactose intolerance (where your body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products), a switch to veganism, and beliefs around dairy being high in fat, and therefore less healthy.

But for people without an intolerance or who are not vegan, is for example substituting cow’s milk for a non-dairy one really the healthier option? Not always.

“There’s a lot of buzz around dairy at the moment,” says Tracy Parker, a senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation. “For a long time there’s always been this association of dairy foods contributing to our saturated fat intake, so limiting our intake and focusing on low fat dairy.”

A diet high in saturated fat can lead to raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, and this can put you at increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

But we now have studies coming out also showing a range of health benefits from eating dairy, says Parker.

Dairy and health - bowl of yoghurt

Is dairy good for my health?

“Milk is good for you,” says Parker. “It’s part of a food group that provides a whole load of nutrients.” The nutrients in dairy products include calcium, protein, iodine and essential vitamins.

But if you’re worried about saturated fat levels or you’re trying to lose weight, it may be worth choosing lower fat dairy options, such as semi-skimmed milk.

Lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure

A global study in the BMJ this month showed an association between eating at least two servings of dairy per day and lower risks of diabetes and high blood pressure

The dairy products included were milk, yogurt, yogurt drinks, cheese and dishes prepared with dairy products.

Previous studies have shown a similar association, highlighting the benefits dairy can have on heart health and reducing the risk of diabetes. But the reasons behind this link are unknown and more research is needed to understand just how dairy reduces your risk of these conditions.

Healthy bones

Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese are among the best sources of calcium, which is essential for bone health at all ages.

Your body can’t produce calcium, so it needs to get it from the food you eat.

Is dairy good for you - grated cheese

Is dairy bad for my health?

Excess wind or gas

Some people experience excess wind or feel bloated as a result of eating dairy products, causing discomfort and sometimes pain in their abdomen.

This is usually a sign of lactose intolerance and symptoms will develop within a few hours of consuming food or drink containing lactose.

If you think you may be lactose intolerant, you should talk to a doctor before removing dairy from your diet.

Dairy as part of a balanced diet

As with all foods, you should manage your portions of dairy, and include it as part of a balanced diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts and low in red meats and processed foods.

The highly-praised Mediterranean diet includes dairy, for example.

How much dairy should I eat?

In the UK, guidelines suggest eating 2 to 3 portions of dairy per day. The UK’s National Health Service further recommends low-fat or fat-free options for adults.

The American Heart Association recommends 3 servings per day of low-fat or fat-free dairy.

But servings depend on the type of dairy you’re eating. Some milks and yogurts can be high in added sugar, so it’s worth looking out for this.

Dairy portions graphic

Cheeses such as cheddar and stilton are high in fat, while reduced-fat cottage cheese is low in fat.

Butter and cream are also high in saturated fat, while low fat yogurts and fromage frais are low -- and these have the added benefit of containing a range of bacteria that are good for your gut health.

To help you stay on track, you could:

  • choose lower-fat cheeses
  • eat smaller pieces of stronger cheeses -- so you still get enough flavour
  • grate rather than slice cheese -- to help you eat less
  • choose plain, lower-fat yogurts
  • use small amounts of cream and butter as needed, but less often
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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