Does Dairy Cause Inflammation?

Cow

Dairy

“Oh, I can’t eat that. I’m avoiding dairy.” 

Have you heard that phrase before? Likely you have, and it either produces a strong desire to roll your eyes real hard … or it peaks your curiosity. I mean, if Jane from accounting stopped eating dairy, maybe you should too?

The Ongoing Dairy Controversy

Poor dairy has had a hard go of it in recent years. On the one hand, the USDA’s My Plate touts dairy as an important part of a well-rounded diet. As a good source of calcium, protein, Vit D and potassium, it is recommended to consume 2-3 servings per day for all age groups.

On the other hand, various “health” groups have publicized dairy as a high cholesterol, toxic-containing, acne-inducing, cancer-promoting, inflammatory time bomb that will slowly destroy your health.

Well geez, which is it? 

What is Inflammation?

Well first, let’s get a quick refresher on inflammation before we dive a little deeper.  

Inflammation is actually a good, natural and essential process that your body uses to defend itself from infections and heal injured cells and tissues.

Inflammation is sometimes compared to a fire. It produces specific biochemicals that can destroy invaders like bacteria and viruses, increase blood flow to areas that need it, and clean up debris. It can be a really good thing.

Flame

When inflammation does its job, it repairs the targeted area and your body can go on about its business. BUT, when inflammation becomes chronic, either fueled by constant injury or other factors (food, stress, contaminants, etc), it can cause more damage than good. 

Consider this analogy, which may hit a little too close to home for those of us on the West coast. A little fire is usually good, right?  A lot of fire, not so good. It takes over everything and ruins your summer. Yeah, you get it. 

Too much fire, ie chronic inflammation, is linked with a number of different health concerns including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, pain and neurodegenerative diseases. No bueno.

Does Dairy Lead to Chronic Inflammation?

Cleary we need to avoid chronic inflammation. This then begs the question … does dairy lead to this chronic inflammation as many online sources seem to suggest?

The answer is … wait for it … it depends! Ah, the answer everyone loves to hate. 

In and of itself, dairy does not appear to be inflammatory. Several recent studies support this. For the majority, dairy does not show any increase in markers for inflammation and, in fact, for some, there is even an anti-inflammatory benefit. 

Before you applaud and slice that cheese, there are some individual factors that may cause dairy to be more inflammatory for certain people. 

Dairy Allergies and Inflammation

While it does not appear dairy in general is inflammatory for all groups, it does seem to increase inflammation (ie light the fire) for those with a dairy allergy or sensitivity. If you are allergic to milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. … this is you.

This is NOT you, however, if you are lactose intolerant. These are two completely separate issues. 

While the former involves interaction with the immune system (hence the increase in “fire”), the latter is associated with an enzyme deficiency. The lack of lactase, or the enzyme that breaks down the dairy carbohydrate lactose, is what causes the unpleasant and annoying symptoms of lactose intolerance. It is not inflammation. That’s good news. 

Unfortunately, it can be hard to know the difference, and some may have a dairy sensitivity AND lactose intolerance. Consult with an allergist or even a dietitian if you are having trouble figuring out if your symptoms might be related to an allergy or an intolerance, or both. The differences may matter when it comes to inflammation.

What About Saturated Dairy Fats? Aren’t They Inflammatory?

Let’s talk about fats. Indeed, dairy does have both cholesterol and saturated fats (unless buying fat-free options), which are both linked to inflammatory conditions, especially heart disease.

But again, as previously noted, dairy is not linked to an increase in inflammation. While it is still not clear why, dairy is actually linked with a lower risk for heart disease. This is good news for dairy lovers. 

Graphic of various dairy products

In fact, some dairy products may contain anti-inflammatory fats, making them even healthier. Grass-fed dairy products, for example, have been shown to have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are well known to be anti-inflammatory, so adding more of these types of these high-quality dairy products to your diet could increase the anti-inflammatory effect even further.

I would recommend buying mostly grass-fed products if possible, and as with all foods, keep dairy intake in moderation. 

Doesn’t Dairy Cause Inflammation That Leads to Acne? 

While we’ve discussed that dairy is not necessarily inflammatory, there are actually links between dairy intake and acne, particularly in adolescents.

It’s pretty well known that changes in hormones during the teens years leads to acne, and studies have shown that foods that affect hormone levels can increase the incidence and severity.

In particular, foods that spike insulin (ie high glycemic foods), and dairy foods, have both been found to increase growth factors and alter hormone levels during puberty, and that may be what worsens acne.

Interestingly, in native populations that follow traditional, non-Western diets, with little to know dairy intake, there are almost no cases of acne in adolescents! As diets progress towards more Western patterns with higher levels of refined carbs and dairy products, the cases of acne increase significantly. In fact, in Western countries, almost 100% of the population will deal with acne.

All of this points to dairy as a contributing factor to acne, but likely not for the reasons commonly pointed to, ie inflammation. Dairy may impact hormone levels, which is felt more acutely by adolescents and potentially anyone going through hormone shifts, and so cutting back or cutting out dairy for these groups may be wise.

What About Pasteurization? Is Raw Milk Better?

Pasteurization is a hot topic. Pasteurized dairy, some claim, is more inflammatory because the proteins become harder to digest and the excessive heat destroys all the vitamins. Raw milk is superior, they say. Let’s take a quick look at these various claims.

Proteins 

The theory is that the heat process used to ward off pathogens denatures proteins (ie changes their shape) and these now oddly-shaped proteins are targeted by the immune system, which then provokes an inflammatory response.

It is in fact true that pasteurization does denature some of the milk proteins. But so far, we have no evidence that this decreases ones ability to digest milk proteins and increases inflammation across the board. In fact, most studies previously mentioned show dairy products as having an anti-inflammatory benefits, and without a doubt the people in these studies are consuming pasteurized dairy products. 

That being said, for those who have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, these denatured proteins may be part of the reason. But clearly, dairy is not allergenic for everyone. 

One great analogy I read is this. Think of an egg. While we can eat them raw (not without risk, however), most of us prefer them fried, poached, scrambled … you name it. Each of these cooking methods (HEAT) denatures and rearranges the proteins, creating a new “product” so to speak. 

It’s due to the magic of proteins that we can eat eggs in so many different ways.

And yes, some of us may have allergies to these new protein shapes, but most of us don’t. It’s the same with dairy. 

Vitamins

In terms of the vitamin concerns, it seems to be that yes, some of the delicate vitamins in dairy, mainly Vitamins C, E and B vitamins, do decrease with the pasteurization process. However, the decrease is relatively small (<10%), and arguably dairy is not a great source of these nutrients in the first place. Protein and calcium, which are at much higher levels, remain the same.

Also true is the fact that the natural enzymes present in raw milk appear to decrease as well. However, there doesn’t seem to be any negative impact on the digestibility of dairy products overall.

Raw Milk

So while many use the arguments above in favor of raw milk, please be aware that those are separate topics from inflammation. In fact, the lack of pasteurization of dairy is more closely linked to inflammation. 

Raw milk can cause significant inflammation if contaminated products are consumed. It is estimated that up to 1/3 of raw milk products contain pathogens.

Consuming raw milk vs pasteurized is certainly a choice that one may wish to make for a variety of reasons and should be done extremely carefully, but it should not be confused with reducing inflammation.

What About Dairy and Cancer? 

This topic is ripe with controversy. Many online sources claim dairy increases the risk for cancer, especially prostate and breast cancer. This can lead to a giant web hole of scary stuff. But take a deep breath. The truth is, the studies are very mixed, and it may depend on so many different factors. 

This study, for example, reported that when looking at dairy intake as a whole, there was no clear increase in the risk for cancer. BUT, when looking at whole milk intake alone, there did seem to be a higher risk for prostate cancer in men. 

Another study showed cheese having a protective role against breast cancer, but high intakes of milk may slightly increase the risk. Other studies show no increased risk.

Overall, the jury is still out here. If you have a family history of cancer, consider talking with your doctor or a dietitian to see if reducing or removing dairy might be a good choice for you. 

And of course, when it comes to cancer, the WHOLE diet matters, not only the presence of dairy or not, so always look for ways to make your diet and lifestyle the healthiest it can be.

What is A2 Milk? Is it Better?

Lastly, let’s address the A1 vs A2 milk controversy. You may have seen A2 milk products in the store and been confused. I know I was. When looking for milk options when my kiddo was a toddler, I too wondered what the heck wsa A2 milk and more importantly, should I care? 

First off, A1 and A2 refer to the type of beta-casein proteins found in milk. Originally all cows produced solely the A2 proteins. Somewhere along the way a mutation occurred, resulting in a tiny change to the structure of the beta-casein protein. This new protein was labeled A1. This minor alteration, while by no means unhealthy, may make it harder for some people to digest dairy.

In particular, infants with immature immune systems may have more trouble breaking down A1 milk proteins. One theory is that some babies with tummy issues may be having this problem. It is possible that adults who suffer when consuming dairy may be unable to break down this protein as well. 

And when these proteins are not digested and left intact, they may trigger the immune system to mount a response, contributing to allergies or sensitivities which cause inflammation.

This is where A2 milk came into play. Companies, presumably having an “aha” moment, began promoting A2 milk as a solution to these problems. As the “ancestral” milk, so to speak, they claim its more digestible and less likely to provoke allergies. 

And you know what? To my surprise, many studies do support this. A2 milk does seem to produce less inflammation and gastrointestinal symptoms, even in children. Those with lactose intolerance appear to digest A2 milk better as well. 

While I originally thought A2 milk was a gimmick, it may actually reduce inflammation for those who have known sensitivities and/or digestive issues with dairy. Give it a try if dairy isn’t your stomach’s best friend. Maybe A2 will change things around.

Final Thoughts

I think it’s clear that we cannot broadly label dairy products as inflammatory. In fact, in many cases they exhibit anti-inflammatory properties. There may be specific times and cases where one would be wise to avoid dairy, but casting dairy as “bad” for everyone is simply false. 

That being said, Jane from accounting may have some very valid reasons for avoiding dairy. The question for you, however, lies in what we talked about above. If you see inflammatory triggers, by all means remove dairy and see how your body does. Or consider A2 milk as an alternative. But if not, ask yourself if keeping a little dairy around might be a good thing. 

And it’s worth remembering, too much of anything is usually asking for trouble, so of course keep dairy intake in moderation. An overall balanced diet is what’s most important, so focus there first before throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

If in doubt, talk to a Registered Dietitian to help you sort all these issues out!

 

 

Danielle VenHuizen, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian, Certified LEAP Therapist