The 5 Most Common Myths About Dairy & Milk, Debunked By Experts
Whether you're considering going vegan, paleo, or low-FODMAP, there's one food group you won't find on the "approved" list: dairy.
Milk products are absent from some of the most popular diets out there, but dairy didn't always have such a bad rep. There are plenty of valid reasons people choose to steer clear of milk, cheese, yogurt, and more, including intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies.
But all those issues aside, many experts say dairy isn't inherently bad for everyone and can even offer nutritional benefits to those who can tolerate it (and enjoy it!). Before you ditch dairy for good, consider a few common dairy myths:
MYTH: Dairy is a bad idea for everyone.
With the proliferation of plant-based milks, ice cream, yogurts, and more, you might assume that dairy should be off the table for everyone. Not quite, says chief wellness officer of Cleveland Clinic Michael Roizen, M.D.
"So many diets tell people the secret to good health is to get rid of it completely, but dairy can serve an important role for our bodies," Roizen says. "Dairy contains calcium, vitamin A, protein, potassium, and other nutrients that we need to maintain strong health."
Of course, "for ethical reasons, many people who don't eat meat are also uncomfortable with dairy farming," says dietitian Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., CSSD, LDN. "But when it comes to claims about lower nutritional quality and potential inflammation, there just isn't [much] research to back up those statements."
In some cases, people may notice better breathing or skin health after eliminating dairy, in which case they may have a mild allergy, she says. "While those anecdotes are valid, it doesn't mean those reactions would occur in everyone consuming dairy."
MYTH: A milk allergy and intolerance are the same thing.
The terms "lactose intolerance" and "milk allergy" are often used interchangeably, but they're not the same condition, and understanding the difference may help you decide if cutting out dairy actually makes sense for you.
"An allergy and intolerance are drastically different," Jones says. "Allergies are hypersensitivity reactions of the immune system, while intolerances are discomfort to a food or food component, due to the body's inability to effectively digest and absorb the food." She adds that dairy intolerances are much more prevalent than allergies.
As people age, many lose their ability to digest lactose, the prevalent sugar in milk. This condition, called lactose intolerance, affects about 65% of adults, and can cause uncomfortable symptoms like gas, diarrhea, and bloating. A dairy allergy is much more serious and much more rare. When someone is allergic to milk, they actually have an immune reaction to the casein or whey proteins in the product. This can create unpleasant symptoms like hives and itching, or it can escalate to something severe and life-threatening, like anaphylaxis.
"Lactose intolerance is much more common but doesn't always mean cutting out dairy completely," Roizen says. "Many people who have lactose intolerance can still tolerate small amounts of dairy. It's also important to note that there are several dairy products that come from cows but have very small amounts of lactose, like colostrum supplements and kefir."
MYTH: Calcium is the only beneficial component of dairy products.
To many people, milk's most redeeming quality is its high level of calcium, the mineral essential for healthy bones, muscles, nerves, and more. But there's a lot more to milk products that's often overlooked.
"It also provides protein, B vitamins, and is often fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient many Americans are low in," Jones says. "Raw milk and raw cheese may also provide natural probiotics." She further likes to educate her clients on how dairy can boost protein in meals or snacks, "especially post-workout, due to its specific amino acids that may help optimize muscle repair."
And while you may have heard the phrase "milk builds strong bones," other dairy products benefit our health as well, Roizen says. "Colostrum supplements are a great example of this," she says. "Colostrum is a naturally derived potent superfood, which has clinically demonstrated to support the immune and digestive systems. It is packed with immunoglobulins and other beneficial factors to help the body fend off bacteria and invaders."
MYTH: Dairy is found only in food.
If you have made the choice to cut milk out of your diet for any reason, it's important to know that you may need to devote a lot more time to reading labels, and keep in mind that dairy can pop up in unexpected places.
"If you're allergic to dairy, or choose not to consume it for ethical reasons, it's imperative that you check labels of all packaged foods and beverages," Jones says.
That said, food isn't the only place you'll find dairy. "In actuality, many medications or supplements also contain dairy," says Roizen.
"In many cases, the lactose acts as an inactive filler for these medications, and it is such a small quantity that most patients who are lactose intolerant can ingest it without experiencing symptoms," she says. "But it is important to discuss with your doctor and figure out what dosage and medications are right for you."
What's more, "If your allergy results in anaphylaxis, you should also be mindful of dairy's inclusion in body care products," says Jones.
MYTH: You have to commit to three servings a day.
"It's OK if you don't reach the three servings per day recommended by the dietary guidelines for Americans," Jones says, noting the recommendation is based on the idea that three 8-ounce cups of milk provide the amount of calcium you need in a day. "Fitting in dairy as it makes sense for you is totally fine, as long as you're eating a variety of plant foods to supply the calcium you need," she says, such as beans and certain vegetables.
Ultimately, whether you decide to consume dairy or not is a very individual choice for your body—but it's important to cut through the noise, nonetheless.
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Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and marketing specialist. She UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, O: The Oprah Magazine, SF Weekly, and a many more.
She’s also a contributing editor at California Home Design.