The 4 Best Dairy Foods for Your Gut Health, According to Gastroenterologists

Can dairy foods actually support your gut health?

Many dairy products are rich in nutrients that support optimal health and development throughout life, including protein, vitamin D, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, according to a 2019 study published in Nutrients. But did you know some dairy products are also fantastic for your gut health? These foods promote the growth of gut-healthy bacteria, notes research in Gut Microbes in 2020.

Pictured Recipe: Raspberry-Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt Bark

In the past decade, more and more research has revealed the profound impact that the gut has on overall health, notes a 2019 review in Nutrients. According to the National Institutes of Health, gut health is critical in immune system function and chronic disease risk. In addition, gut health has been associated with mental health in what's known as the gut-brain connection.

"The health of the gastrointestinal tract is intricately linked to the health of the entire body," says Louisville-based Sunana Sohi, M.D., a board-certified gastroenterologist and member of the American Medical Association. "A healthy gut microbiome has not only been associated with digestive tract wellness but also a stronger immune system, as well as decreased rates of depression and anxiety, dementia, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer." So if your goal is to improve your overall health, eating foods good for your gut is a wise choice. Keep reading to learn which dairy foods are best for adding more healthy bacteria to your gut.

4 Best Dairy Foods for Your Gut Health

1. Kefir

Kefir is a fermented dairy product that has excellent probiotic properties. According to the NIH, probiotics can boost the proliferation of healthy gut bacteria and strengthen the immune system.

Kefir is produced from various types of milk, including cow, goat and sheep, through a microbial fermentation process. This fermentation process gives kefir its diverse bacterial and yeast strains that support gut health.

"Consuming dairy products like kefir can improve the gut microbial balance, enhance digestion and support the immune system," says Sarah Robbins, M.D., a gastroenterologist and physician nutrition specialist in British Columbia, Canada.

2. Yogurt

Yogurt is a fermented milk that's also rich in probiotic cultures. The live bacteria found in yogurt help boost gut health and can aid in weight loss and lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a 2022 study published in BMC Microbiology.

Additionally, a 2017 study in the journal Microorganisms found that some Greek yogurts containing Lactobacillus probiotic bacteria strains can increase the number of beneficial gut bacteria. Lactobacillus probiotic bacteria also have been shown to strengthen the intestinal defense barrier by causing mucus secretion in the gut, according to a 2022 study in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

"Yogurt can support gut health through several ways, especially when it contains probiotics (beneficial live bacteria) and prebiotics, which are non-digestible fibers that promote the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria," states Robbins.

Raspberry-Lemon Greek Yogurt Bark
Jason Donnelly

3. Buttermilk

Buttermilk is made by fermenting low-fat milk with bacteria, according to Britannica. The result is a probiotic-rich drink. While buttermilk can be consumed on its own, it has a sour taste similar to plain yogurt. That's why buttermilk is typically used in baking or making marinades.

A February 2022 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences revealed that buttermilk could promote the production of short-chain fatty acids, specifically butyrate. Butyrate is fantastic for gut health since it strengthens the intestinal barrier, preventing bacteria and other microbes from passing through the bloodstream.

"Dairy products that contain short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate play a role in gut health by providing energy to colon cells, maintaining the gut barrier function and reducing inflammation," explains Robbins.

4. Aged Cheese

"Dairy products that are easy to digest include aged cheeses," says Robbins. "Some of these aged cheeses also contain beneficial gut bacteria." However, according to Harvard Health Publishing, probiotics are typically only found in aged cheeses that haven't been heated, which can kill off the good bacteria. Aged cheeses beneficial for your gut include Cheddar, cottage cheese, Gouda, provolone and Swiss.

While some cheeses contain beneficial probiotics, be sure to eat them in moderation since most types of cheese are calorie-dense and high in saturated fat. Excessive consumption of saturated fats can increase your risk of heart health, per the American Heart Association. Also, eating too much cheese may cause constipation, says the NIH.

Other Ways to Support Your Gut Health

If you're looking for more ways to support your gut health besides adding these gut-friendly dairy foods to your diet, Robbins and Sohi recommend the following:

  • Get enough fiber from plant-based sources.
  • "Eat the rainbow" by including a wide variety of colorful produce in your diet.
  • Eat foods rich in prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics. These include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas and whole grains.
  • Practice stress-reduction techniques like meditation or yoga. Chronic stress can negatively impact gut health via the gut-brain connection, according to a 2020 study in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.
  • Limit ultra-processed foods (e.g., processed meats, sugary cereals, sweets), which cause inflammation and promote unhealthy gut bacteria, according to research in Nutrients in 2019.
  • Stay physically active by getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly , as the CDC's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends. "Daily exercise improves gut motility and the growth of a healthy microbiome," says Robbins.

The Bottom Line

Including these gut-healthy dairy foods in your diet can help support a balanced microbiome. A healthier gut can lead to a more robust immune system and better mental health. Combining the above dairy foods with prebiotic-rich whole foods and healthy lifestyle habits, like stress management, regular exercise and avoiding processed foods, can significantly boost your overall health.

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