While we all love our cheese fries or ice cream sundaes, we're all a bit confused about how we are supposed to handle the dairy in our diet. Some people say it's good for us, others say to stay away: Who is right? "While many consider dairy to be a protein, the body will utilize it first as lactose, or milk sugar. Therefore, people who believe they can get sufficient protein in their daily diet from eating dairy products are misinformed," says Dr. Philip Goglia, celebrity nutritionist and co-founder of G-Plans, the first online nutrition platform based on a user's metabolic body type.
Dairy can be bad news
There are certainly valid reasons to be wary about dairy. "Dairy as a food is phlegm and mucus-producing — disruptive to digestion, causing in most people bloating and gas. It's also inflammatory and will elevate triglyceride levels and the risk of increased sugar sensitivities," says Dr. Goglia. Another important consideration is that nearly all adults have an inherent inability to utilize dairy products and are, therefore, lactose intolerant. "Aside from possibly elevating cholesterol, a diet rich in dairy products, such as butter and cheese, is going to create digestive difficulties," says Dr. Goglia. "Asthmatics and athletes do not consume dairy because it is phlegm-producing and will inhibit oxygen consumption and utilization (apart from the splash of milk in your coffee)," he continued. So-called healthy options, like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, and its sugars — maltose and lactose — will especially cause bloating and digestive discomfort.
Dairy has its values
Unless it makes you sick, however, experts say there's really no reason to feel like you have to stay away. "The only instance where I believe that dairy should be avoided is for people with lactose intolerance or for anyone who has a specific reason why they need to avoid dairy (such as skin issues that they've been able to trace to dairy consumption)," says Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. Not only is dairy a great source of calcium, which most people know, it's also a great way to get protein without having to rely on meat.
"Take Greek yogurt. A six-ounce serving of non-fat plain greek yogurt has just 100 calories but 18 grams of protein (and only 7 grams of carbs, which comes from lactose, the milk sugar)," says Turoff. "A 1/2 cup serving of 1% cottage cheese has 90 calories and 15 grams of protein (with just 4 grams of carbs)," says Turoff.
Dairy also offers a ton of flavor and can enhance healthy foods (for instance, adding some feta cheese to your omelet in the morning, goat cheese on a high-fiber cracker or a tablespoon of parmesan in a salad). "You can absolutely have a healthy diet WITHOUT dairy, but if you don't have any reason to omit it, then why would you? Have you ever put whole milk in your coffee and then tried to convince yourself that almond milk was just as good? It takes an ounce or two of whole milk to get a nice creamy consistency to your coffee while it would take probably a cup of almond milk to get that," says Turoff.
Many of the "dairy-free" products on the market are full of chemicals and sugar. Of course, if you have trouble digesting dairy or notice that you feel better without it, then it's completely understandable to want to cut it out. "For those of us who have no issues digesting it and are scared of the headlines denouncing dairy, shouldn't be!" says Turoff. "I haven't read any good studies that would convince me to take dairy out of my diet. Just like anything, you have to balance it. Of course, if you eat tons of cheese all day and just drink cups of chocolate milk, you're probably not going to feel good. But an ounce of cheese on a huge salad with tons of veggies? No problems there!" says Turoff.
"Today we are dealing with a food industry that is making products that are full of sugar, sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, and chemical additives that harm our health. The best thing we can do is to start eating whole natural foods and go back to preparing meals at home where we have control of what goes into our body and in turn our health," says Florencia Tagliavini, in-house nutritionist for The NutraMilk.
"Cow's milk is a good source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D, the main reasons it has become a staple in our diets," says Tagliavini. "We have been bombarded with campaigns about how milk does the body good and is necessary for growth and strong bones especially in children. The truth is that there are many good sources of protein and calcium aside from cow's milk," says Tagliavini. The Harvard School of Public Health, after much research, has created a healthy-eating plate without milk as opposed to the USDA's plate. There has been a lot of controversial information about the health of cow's milk that can be hard to sort through. "What is a definite truth is that it is not necessary for our health and thanks to the growing availability of plant-based milks, it's now easier to have an alternative option that is full of vitamins, minerals, plant protein, and heart-healthy fats that are beneficial for our health," says Tagliavini.