Dairy has been a hot topic for decades with very mixed reviews on its health implications – both positive and negative. Some people believe dairy foods to be extremely nutritious and an important part of our diet, whereas others believe it causes negative side effects and should be avoided. So I'm going to discuss why there is such a divide and how you can wade through the mountain of information to make the best choice for YOU when it comes to dairy.
Quite simply, there is a divide because some people can tolerate dairy and some people can't. Dairy products contain a sugar called lactose, which not all people can digest. As well as this, a much smaller number of people are intolerant, or more seriously allergic, to the protein found in cow's milk. The fact that dairy CAN cause digestive discomfort for some, leads to many people being wary of it – but very often this is an unnecessary fear.
The reason for this dates back goes way back in history. Thousands of years ago, humans would stop producing lactase – the enzyme needed to breakdown lactose – once they were weaned off breast milk. This was due to a lack of dairy foods in the diet so their bodies no longer had a need for lactase. However over the years, as dairy foods became more prevalent, some people began to continue eating dairy containing foods later into life – mostly cheese and yogurt which contain much smaller amounts of lactose than milk. This lead to a gradual increased tolerance to dairy foods, as their bodies evolved to continue producing larger amounts of lactase after weaning. Eventually many of these people and their descendants could tolerate drinking milk, and eating cheese and yogurt every day.
However, this 'genetic adaptation' did not occur across all cultures as many simply didn't continue to consume dairy regularly due to variation in food availability and dietary habits. So for this reason, there are some populations in the world today who simply can't tolerate lactose after weaning, as their bodies stop producing lactase after infancy. In fact figures show that only about 35% of the world's population can tolerate lactose – mostly people of European decent where dairy is an important part of the diet. Whereas a large proportion of Asian, South African and Australian populations can't tolerate dairy due a much reduced availability of dairy in such countries. For us here in the UK, about 90% of the population are absolutely fine with dairy.
So the take home message is, that although some people can't digest dairy well, others are absolutely fine with it. So unless you have a medically diagnosed intolerance to dairy, you do not need to remove it from your diet and can continue to happily benefit from its array of nutrients. Choose low fat versions of your favourite dairy food where you can to reduce calorie intake – this won't affect the other nutrients, and in fact skimmed milk contains a little bit more calcium than full fat!
It's easy to get sucked into things when it's all over the media or social media, but it's important to weigh up the facts before jumping on the bandwagon. Although cutting out dairy may be fashionable, if it's unnecessary for you then you may be losing out on important nutrients for no good reason.
Nutritionist Emma Brown, MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.