3 things you should know about dairy

To understand how dairy foods (milk, yoghurt and cheese) affect health, consider these 3 nutrition principles:

1. Foods are much more than negative nutrients.

Yes, dairy foods are typically rich in saturated fat. But consider recent scientific research:

The health benefits of dairy, including lower and higher fat ones, makes sense: dairy foods can contain magnesium, calcium, protein, riboflavin, Vitamin B12, conjugated linoleic acid, and fermentation by-products, including probiotics, prebiotics and bioactive peptides, too.

2. Moderation in all things.

The relationship between dairy and health changes according to the amount that is consumed. Consider:

  • The relationship between cheese and heart health appears to be somewhat curvilinear, with the healthiest intake around 40 grams.
  • Large quantities of dairy may slightly increase the risk of prostate cancer.

3. There is no perfect diet.

Instead, there are many different ways to eat healthily, and no ‘best’ recommendation with regards to dairy. Consider:

  • Our body adapts according to what we eat: it has long been known that the absorption of numerous minerals is improved when their intake is low.
  • Nutrients are typically found in array of different foods, and dairy is not required for adequate calcium intake (just consume other calcium rich foods), nor is milk required for optimal bone health.
  • Dairy is not an essential food group, and the health benefits associated with its consumption can be found from eating a variety of other foods, particularly minimally processed plants.

I’ve heard advice not to eat full cream dairy (it’s high in fat!), not to eat low-fat dairy (it’s high in sugar!), not to eat cheese (it’s high in calories!), not to have cow’s milk (it’s not fermented!), and not to eat any dairy at all (it’s not natural!).

Yet my interpretation of the nutrition research is that all can be compatible with good health; yet none are essential for it.

Eat more from what you do enjoy, and enjoy more from what you do eat.

What “everything in moderation” really means

Yes, fruit contains sugar, and a high sugar intake can increase body weight.

But increasing fruit consumption to 2 serves a day enriches your diet with fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, reduces heart disease risk by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, decreases risk of early death by 12%, and does not actually lead to any weight gain.

Yes, grains contain carbohydrates, and a high carbohydrate intake may impair weight loss and lower good cholesterol, increasing heart disease risk.

But 40-50 grams of fibre-rich grains a day (only slightly more than 1 slice of wholemeal bread, or 1 bowl of oats) enriches your diet with vitamins, minerals, resistant starch and antioxidants, actually reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and bowel cancer, plus supports better weight management, too.

Yes, nuts are rich in calories, and reducing calories is the most important dietary factor for weight management. 

But just 30 grams of nuts a day (about 20 almonds, or 10 walnuts) provides unsaturated fats, fibre, phytochemicals and antioxidants, lowers risk of heart disease (by 30%) and diabetes (by 18%), and does not promote weight gain in any way.

Yes, dairy products usually contain saturated fat, which increases cholesterol and heart disease risk in comparison to unsaturated fats, and dairy increases prostate cancer risk too, particularly if more than 3 serves a day are consumed.

But about 2 serves of dairy a day (1 serve is 1 small tub of yoghurt, 2 slices of cheese or 1 glass of milk) is widely recommended as it provides calcium, protein, B vitamins and zinc, does not increase cardiovascular disease (it may actually reduces its risk, especially if fermented dairy foods are eaten, such as yoghurt and cheese), and may help to reduce body fat as part of a calorie-controlled diet, too.

Yes, red meat can increase bowel cancer risk, when 120g or more is consumed each day. 

But 120g of red meat (red meat includes beef, lamb and pork, and 120g is about the amount of 1 regular steak) consumed no more than 3-4 times a week provides easily absorbed iron, protein, zinc and B vitamins, does not increase heart disease risk when trimmed of visible fat, and, due to its impressive nutrient profile, may help with both weight management and meeting nutrient requirements on a calorie-controlled diet, positively affecting health.

Yes, coffee is rich in caffeine, which often leads to anxiety, insomnia and palpitations, in excess.

But 2-3 cups of coffee a day is not only safe for most adults, it reduces diabetes risk by 20%, and has no negative effects on long-term blood pressure or heart disease risk.

Yes, 2 or more standard drinks of alcohol a day increases blood pressure and the risk of oesophageal, bowel, liver, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer, plus stroke and premature death.

But about 1 standard drink of alcohol on most days is not only safe, it is actually associated with a 29% reduced risk of heart disease compared to not drinking any alcohol at all.

Yes, confectionary and highly processed foods contain refined sugars, starches, salt, or saturated fat, directly contributing to poor health and lasting disease in excess.

But when no more than 500-1000kJ is consumed (500kJ is about 2 small scoops of ice cream, 6 small lollies or 1 small doughnut), it is not only compatible with healthy living, it can also provide you with satisfaction and joy, which quite ironically, in this way may actually reduce your likelihood of overeating calories and gaining weight and improve your immune functioning and physical health.

Notice, then, how it is the amount of food we eat, and not so much the food itself, that determines its health effect.

Whilst fad diets talk to us about good or bad and all or nothing, evidenced-based nutrition promotes the concepts of moderation and balance. It argues “everything in moderation” because it demonstrates that it is actually the amount that matters most.

The challenge today is how to separate fad diets from good nutrition, so that we have an informed understanding about where the healthiest ranges actually exist.

So to help make it slightly easier for you: in all my time spent reading the literature, never have I seen the healthiest range for a whole food group or major nutrient exist only at zero.

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