Cutting out dairy is the trend, but what's the real story when it comes to dairy and inflammation?

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
October 14, 2019

What food should you eliminate to reduce inflammation? You're not alone if dairy is the first thing that comes to mind. And while a small percentage of the population benefits by avoiding dairy, research suggests that dairy products like yogurt may actually have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Pictured recipe: Ground Beef & Pasta Skillet

So, what's the real story when it comes to dairy and inflammation? The quick answer is that it appears most people don't need to cut dairy out in order to improve health and reduce inflammation—at least not long-term. The longer answer is that there's not a lot of definitive research (good or bad) about dairy's effects on inflammation and overall health, and this gray area makes it easier for speculation and opinion to seem like fact. Here's what we know for sure about dairy and inflammation.

Related: 10 Ways to Reduce Inflammation

What We Know About Dairy & Inflammation

We dug into the research to see if dairy actually does cause inflammation. Here's what we found.

Dairy, Inflammation & Fat

Research suggests that saturated fats promote inflammation within the body. In fact, inflammation is considered to be the primary method by which heart disease and other chronic diseases develop. We get saturated fat from foods like meat, poultry, eggs and coconut oil, but also from higher-fat dairy products such as cheese, cream and whole milk.

Because of the inflammatory effects seen from saturated fat, higher-fat dairy products are considered inflammatory foods. But a 2017 review that analyzed results from 52 human clinical trials looking at dairy and inflammation suggested that dairy appears to have a weak, yet statistically significant, anti-inflammatory effect in the body. And this effect was seen with full-fat dairy products as well.

What does this mean? Researchers aren't really sure. While saturated fat may not be as harmful and inflammatory as we once thought, that doesn't mean we're in the clear to eat loads of saturated fat-containing foods—especially people with diabetes or heart disease. Until more is known, keep tabs on sat fat, but feel free to work some cheese or milk into your diet.

Related: Try Our Favorite Healthy Cheese Recipes

Dairy, Inflammation & Probiotics

Improving gut health is an essential component to reducing overall inflammation in the body, and regularly consuming a variety of good bacteria strains is one of the best ways to do this. Good bacteria, or probiotics, have many benefits in the body, including improving immune function and making the intestinal gut lining stronger and less permeable. This, in turn, means fewer irritants such as toxins, chemicals and other compounds are able to cross the gut lining and get into the body to trigger inflammation.

Fermented foods are primary sources of probiotics, including fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir, and research published in 2017 and 2018 suggests that regularly consuming fermented dairy may reduce or minimize inflammation by improving gut health. It is important to note that both studies appear to be funded by the National Dairy Council.

What does this mean? Eating yogurt and dairy products with active, live bacteria cultures may help strengthen gut health to reduce inflammation.

See More: How to Make Your Own Kefir from Milk

Milk Allergy, Lactose Intolerance & Inflammation

As mentioned above, there's a small segment of the population that does need to eliminate most dairy products—and that's people with a milk allergy: they're allergic to casein, a protein in dairy. For these individuals, consuming milk or milk-based products triggers a direct inflammatory response from the immune system, the effects of which can be mild to life-threatening.

Lactose intolerance is completely different, as it's not life-threatening and not inflammation-based. Individuals with lactose intolerance lack the enzyme required to break down lactose, the natural sugar found in milk, so when they consume milk, the result is usually mild to moderate gastrointestinal symptoms like gas, bloating or diarrhea. But this is caused by the undigested sugars, not by any inflammation that dairy triggered. Typically, lactose-intolerant individuals opt to cut dairy intake back greatly, but many can still consume small amounts of dairy, or certain dairy products, like yogurt, with no problem.

What does this mean? Even when the reaction is mild, consuming milk and foods containing milk will trigger an inflammatory immune response in people with a milk allergy. However, inflammation isn't the cause of lactose intolerance, so avoiding dairy may minimize symptoms but does little in regard to inflammation.

Dairy Sensitivities & Inflammation

A more controversial area of debate is dairy sensitivity, largely because a food sensitivity is difficult to accurately identify. Food sensitivities aren't life-threatening and don't trigger a direct immune response like an allergen does, but many functional medicine practitioners and dietitians think food sensitivities are worth paying attention to from an inflammatory standpoint.

The reason is that existing low-grade inflammation appears to make some individuals hypersensitive or more susceptible to irritation from foods that normally wouldn't bother them. An elimination diet where dairy is temporarily eliminated for several weeks (along with several other foods) is considered the best way to diagnose a sensitivity. When you slowly add those foods back, you watch for signs of irritation or inflammation to see if the body appears sensitive to a particular food.

What does this mean? Inflammation may cause the body to be hypersensitive to foods such as dairy, so it can be beneficial to temporarily eliminate it, with help from a dietitian or physician. Once the body has calmed down, slowly add it back and watch for reactions. You may find you have a dairy sensitivity or you may find that you can consume dairy just fine now that the body has calmed down and isn't hypersensitive.

Related: What's an Elimination Diet—and When Should I Try One?

The Bottom Line

Unless you have a milk allergy, research suggests that dairy is not the root cause of low-grade inflammation in the body. In fact, consuming foods like yogurt may actually help to reduce inflammation. But, you may want to try temporarily cutting out both dairy and gluten for a few weeks if you have existing inflammation or irritations in the body. Focus on whole, minimally processed foods, de-stress and allow your body to calm down. Then, try adding back a little yogurt or other dairy. You may find that dairy isn't an issue when your body is in a healthy place.

See More: The Best Foods to Eat to Fight Inflammation

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is author of the new cookbook Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism Award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.

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