Dairy: How Food Affects Health

Dairy products are a great source of calcium and protein, but if you’re consuming full-fat dairy you may be increasing your risk of some conditions.

Dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, and other calcium-rich foods boost bone health and help in the prevention and management of osteoporosis. While dairy is most well-known for its calcium content, it also contains potassium, which helps increase bone formation and density, improves calcium balance, and reduces bone resorption by neutralizing metabolic acids. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb and process calcium.

In addition to calcium and potassium, dairy contains other nutrients, such as riboflavin, a B vitamin shown to be helpful in the prevention of cataracts; zinc, a mineral involved in maintaining healthy skin and preventing and treating macular degeneration; and vitamin B12, which helps keep hair healthy and may slow memory loss and ease feelings of depression.

Dairy also provides a nice amount of protein. Protein helps to steady blood-sugar levels and is therefore an important ingredient for individuals with type 2 diabetes. However, full-fat dairy (versus low-fat dairy) contains unnecessary calories, which can contribute to weight gain when consumed in excess. Full-fat dairy is also high in saturated fat, which may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cataracts and macular degeneration, and memory loss.

Swapping full-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream for nonfat or low-fat versions will decrease the amount of saturated fat in your diet and dramatically reduce your total calorie intake — good news for individuals trying to lose weight or reduce their risk of heart disease.

Low-fat dairy may also be protective against gout: Studies show that people who eat two or three servings of low-fat dairy foods — especially milk and yogurt — each day may cut their risk of developing gout by about half.

Many people are sensitive to dairy products, which may be a sign of lactose intolerance, but dairy is also a common trigger for IBS. Certain dairy products — aged cheeses, yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, and chocolate-flavored dairy — may also trigger migraines. And while the calcium in dairy helps to decrease blood pressure, be aware that most cheeses are high in salt: So, eat only moderate amounts, look for low-sodium brands, and factor the sodium content into your daily sodium totals, especially if you have hypertension or are salt-sensitive.