Dairy for many people evokes warm, sentimental feelings from childhood. We loved our cheesy mac-n-cheese, our cool, sweet ice cream cones in the summer, or a tall glass of cold milk with homemade chocolate chip cookies, warm from the oven. But does that mean dairy is right for your body? Or a necessary part of a healthy diet? There is much controversy. Learning about both sides of the debate will help you determine what is best for your own health and wellness.

Dairy is a source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, and niacin. Those who advocate regular dairy consumption say that the calcium present in dairy products is what keeps your bones strong and healthy, helping to prevent, among other disease, osteoporosis. While dairy does contain calcium, an abundant amount of calcium alone can actually make bones incredibly dense, making them more prone to breaks. Calcium consumed with a balanced amount of vitamin D is more helpful in building bones that are strong and flexible, the necessary prescription for strong bones for life. In fact, studies show that in the countries with the highest amounts of dairy consumed lie the highest amount of people suffering from osteoporosis, and vice-versa. Calcium can also be found in other sources, such as dark, leafy green vegetables, bone broths, and sea vegetables. Exercise is another way of naturally strengthening bones.

Another touted benefit of dairy is that it’s an inexpensive source of protein. Some groups say that many traditional cultures consumed dairy in their diets, sometimes large amounts, and present none of the chronic disease plaguing those eating the SAD (Standard American Diet). Others, however, claim that the saturated fat present in all animal products, including dairy, causes certain diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, in his well-known book The China Study, goes into-depth on the detriments of dairy on your health.

Something that the pro-dairy camp don’t seem to take into account is the fact that not all people can tolerate dairy or that they can only tolerate it in small amounts. As weaning infants, humans posses an enzyme that helps to break down the proteins present in mother’s milk. However, as we come out of the weaning stage, most of us lose that enzyme, some of us lose it completely. This means that when we, as adults, consume dairy we might experience gas, bloating, cramping, acne, nasal congestion, and so on. 

Quality is a big factor when considering whether or not to consume dairy. There are some who say pasteurizing dairy (heating it to a certain temperature to kill most of the present bacteria) is necessary, especially when consuming non-organic dairy. Others say that the only healthy way to consume dairy is to drink it raw, meaning it hasn’t been pasteurized. This keeps intact not only naturally-present and helpful bacteria, but also those enzymes necessary to properly break down milk proteins, which are killed off when heated. 

My opinion when it comes to dairy is that most Americans can only tolerate it in small amounts, if at all, and would do better with dairy in the form of yogurt and harder cheeses vs. milk and ice cream. Purchase organic and if you do choose the raw route, research the farm where you do get the milk from to ensure quality and safety. Aim to get the majority of your calcium from other, healthier sources. Most importantly, listen to your own body to see how well it does (or doesn’t respond) to dairy products.