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Are Dairy and Inflammation Linked? Experts Explain the Popular Debate

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What You Need to Know About Dairy and InflammationFlavio Coelho - Getty Images

Chronic inflammation has been linked to a variety of serious health issues, including heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and depression. With that, it makes sense to want to do what you can to lower your risk of having bodily inflammation.

While research into this field is ongoing, there’s one food group that is popularly thought to be linked with inflammation: dairy. But does dairy cause inflammation at all, or is this just another health myth? Dietitians and a gastroenterologist break it down.

Meet the Experts: Rudolph Bedford, M.D., is a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.; Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., is a nutritionist and personal trainer, and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab; Scott Keatley, R.D., is a nutritionist and co-owner of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy

Does dairy cause inflammation?

It’s important to state this upfront: Unless you have a dairy allergy, there is no research to suggest that dairy causes bodily inflammation. “I’ve heard claims that dairy causes inflammation and, from a scientific standpoint, that is not the case,” says Rudolph Bedford, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

Some studies suggest that dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt may actually lower your risk of bodily inflammation.

All dairy products are not equal, though, says Scott Keatley, R.D., co-owner of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “With food and inflammation, what we are most concerned about are these things called advanced glycation end products (AGEs),” he says. “These occur when proteins or fats combine with sugar in the bloodstream. Since we all have sugar in our bloodstream all the times, AGEs can occur when we eat anything that has fat or protein in it, which is just about everything.”

Milk straight from the cow has AGEs “but the levels are much lower than, say, grilled vegetables,” Keatley says. Dairy products like condensed and evaporated milk, and hard or aged cheeses may have more AGEs than others, he says. “The fermented ones like yogurt and kefir do have compounds within them to decrease these AGEs,” Keatley adds.

To make things more confusing, “the byproducts of products that produce AGEs can influence your gut bacteria to provide anti-inflammatory compounds back into the bloodstream,” Keatley says, so dairy could potentially cancel itself out in your gut.

The biggest potential inflammatory issue with dairy is fat and weight gain, Keatley says. Given that having obesity is considered an inflammatory condition, taking in too many calories from dairy could potentially increase your bodily inflammation—but it shouldn’t be an issue if you’re mindful of how much of the food group you have, he says.

There are caveats, of course. If you have a dairy intolerance or allergy, it’s possible that dairy could cause bodily inflammation for you, says nutritionist and personal trainer Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab. (More on figuring out if that describes you in a moment.)

How can you know if you have a dairy allergy or intolerance?

True dairy and milk allergies are more common in children than adults, but it’s possible to have a dairy allergy as an adult. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma Immunology(ACAAI), symptoms of a milk allergy can include:

  • Hives

  • Upset stomach

  • Vomiting

  • Bloody poop

  • Anaphylaxis, a rare and potentially life-threatening reaction that impairs breathing

However, dairy intolerance is more common—especially as you get older, Dr. Bedford says. The condition happens when you have too little of an enzyme called lactase made in your small intestine, making it difficult to fully digest the sugar (lactose) in milk, per the Mayo Clinic.

“With an intolerance, you may have bloating, abdominal discomfort, gas, and the potential for diarrhea soon after drinking or taking in a dairy product,” Dr. Bedford says.

What to be mindful of if you avoid dairy

Dairy-free diets are relatively common, but dietitians say there are a few nutrients to be especially mindful of if you avoid the food group. “Dairy is a primary source of calcium and vitamin D for many,” Keatley says. “If someone opts to exclude dairy, they should ensure they’re obtaining these nutrients from other sources like fortified plant-based milks, leafy greens, or fish. Monitoring protein and vitamin B12 intake, especially for vegetarians, is also essential.”

Dairy can also be a good source of protein, Matheny says. “Most people don’t consume enough protein,” he adds. If you’re planning to stop using dairy products, he recommends just making sure you make up that protein content else, like with meat, nuts, and seeds.

If you’re concerned that dairy may be problematic for you, check in with your doctor. They should be able to offer personalized guidance to help you navigate next steps. But, if you haven’t noticed any symptoms linked to you having dairy, experts say you don’t need to stress about a risk of developing bodily inflammation from it.

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