Should I Be Eating Dairy?

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There are now more types of dairy alternative milk offered than there are containers of cow’s milk in the fridge. And let’s not let all the vegan cheeses and coconut milk yogurts go unnoticed. Does that mean we shouldn’t be consuming dairy? Going dairy-free is trending for many reasons. Many people have a dairy allergy or sensitivity to certain dairy foods, while some choose to avoid animal sources as a personal preference (such as for environmental or social reasons). Others limit dairy in attempts to improve a health condition. Whatever the choice may be, just remember that there is no right or wrong answer to whether everyone should be eating dairy. It’s up to you and you only! Still, let’s take a look at why you might want to ditch the dairy.

So, you think you’re allergic?

Having a dairy allergy or intolerance is fairly common for Americans. A cow’s milk allergy is mostly found in infants and is, thankfully, outgrown in most cases. A food allergy causes severe symptoms like hives, throat ulcers, and anaphylactic shock. If the allergy persists, the only treatment is to avoid all dairy foods (this includes cow’s milk, butter, margarine, cheese, yogurt, cream, and ice cream).

A dairy intolerance (which is usually lactose intolerance) is due to a lack of the enzyme that breaks down the lactose sugar in dairy. This causes uncomfortable digestive symptoms like bloating, gassiness, and abdominal pain. Those who are severely intolerant may even experience headaches, brain fog, and mood swings.

We all have a slight intolerance to lactose, but everyone’s threshold is different.

For example, the amount of lactase enzymes our body makes naturally decreases as we age. Your ability to eat a double scoop ice cream cone as a kid may change as an adult as your lactose threshold declines (sorry, ice cream!). Either way, avoiding dairy is beneficial for an allergy or intolerance.

Trying to save the cows?

Vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based folks are well-versed in the ethical and environmental reasons to ditch the dairy such as animal welfare, depleting natural resources, and large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Stuck in-between? Try choosing organic or more sustainably sourced animal products to support the farmers who also care about our planet.

Is cow’s milk safe to drink?

What about all the antibiotics and hormones in cow’s milk? Well, it’s entirely illegal to sell milk with antibiotics, thus all sources of milk must go through strict testing before it hits the stores to confirm there aren’t unsafe levels of antibiotics. So, you’re good there! Dairy milk naturally contains hormones and some farmers do give their cows a synthetic hormone (rBST) to help boost production, but studies show that this added rBST does not have “any impact on human health.” Plus, about 90 percent of hormones are killed during the pasteurization of milk, so, you’re still good!

Is eating dairy even healthy?

Yes! Dairy products are full of nutrients like quality protein, calcium, riboflavin, phosphorus, potassium, and more. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get these nutrients in other ways. A variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and plant-protein sources can be good substitutes for cow’s milk, and most dairy-free products are now fortified with extra vitamins and minerals (specifically vitamin D).

Dairy products do contain varying amounts of saturated fat (the not-so-good fat), so try to lean towards low-fat options if choosing to keep eating dairy. All of this said, it’s not a bad idea to be conscious of the amount of dairy you consume overall. The typical American diet gets dairy from highly processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods (again, sorry ice cream). While these foods shouldn’t be labeled as “bad,” they should be eaten in moderation, with the majority of your meals full of whole foods.

To ditch or not to ditch?

That is the ultimate question… and you can’t go wrong with your answer! Whether you choose to drink traditional milk and eat cheese or not, there are benefits to both dietary choices. Dairy or no dairy, you’ll want to carefully plan your meals and snacks to make sure you’re getting your daily nutrients in a healthy way, so keep reading the actionable steps below!

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Actionable Steps


Not sure if you have an allergy or intolerance?

Think you have an allergy or intolerance? Keep a food diary of which foods cause your symptoms. Is there a common food or group of foods you can name as the culprit? If yes, take this information to an allergist or your primary care doctor before making any major changes to your diet.


Keep your calcium

Enjoy dairy as a healthy part of your diet. The fat in dairy products is known as saturated fat and should be limited in your overall diet. Pick fat-free or low-fat dairy products when you can and stick to the USDA recommendations of 3 servings per day. A serving is 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of yogurt, 1 ounce of hard cheese, or a half cup of cottage cheese.

Or get your calcium in other ways. Calcium (and its best friend phosphorus) is important to our bone and heart health. You can find calcium in other foods like dark, leafy greens, bok choy, broccoli, okra, and fortified foods like most dairy-free milks. Check out more calcium-rich foods here.


Keep your nutrients well-rounded

Get all those milk-y nutrients in other ways. Milk and yogurt are quick and easy sources of protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. Without these foods, you’ll want to make sure you’re replacing them with other high-quality, whole-foods that provide similar nutrients. Switch up your fruits, veggies, whole grains, and protein sources throughout the week to make sure you’re getting a variety.


Experiment with not eating dairy!

Check out more dairy-free foods here. Experiment with different types of “milk,” dairy-free cheese, and delicious desserts!


Find a nutritionist

Still not sure? Chat with a Registered Dietitian to help set things straight and figure out the right plan for you.


Read the longer version

Still want to learn more? Here’s our professional recommended reads: Everything You Need to Know Before Going Dairy Free, Is Dairy Good or Bad for You, and Dairy: Health food or health risk.

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About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Culinary Coach, and Personal Trainer. After dedicating over 8 years to the corporate wellness world, I began my own nutrition practice. Chef Shannon Nutrition focuses on plant-based nutrition and culinary coaching. My passion for culinary nutrition grew when I worked as a cooking instructor for a culinary entertainment company. After several years as an instructor and event coordinator, I moved into the role of Director of Culinary Entertainment where I developed all the recipes, menus, and instructor trainings. My dietetic’s expertise helped the company expand into allergy-friendly and health conscious menus to suit all clients.
Full Bio | LinkedIn | 1:1 Coaching

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