To say there are a lot of strong opinions about milk and dairy foods is an understatement. Not only do a number of fad diets — especially those promoting autoimmune health — claim that consuming dairy is unhealthy, but many people have concerns about the ethics of consuming dairy from an animal rights or environmental perspective. Many of these opinions have some basis in fact, but miss some crucial details. Still, many other people are lactose intolerant or simply don’t like dairy. Let’s see what I can clear up.
The U.S. Department of Health’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that the average adult consume 3 cup equivalents of milk or dairy per day. One cup equivalent is equal to 8 ounces of milk or yogurt, or 1.5 ounces of cheese. Milk and dairy supply many key nutrients, including some that many Americans don’t get enough of, such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium. So while it’s true that you don’t have to consume dairy, if you choose not to, it’s important to find alternative food sources for those nutrients, which can be especially challenging with calcium.
Something I hear a lot is that because some people can’t tolerate dairy, that it’s unhealthy and and we shouldn’t consume it. Many people are lactose intolerant because they lack enough of the enzyme lactase to break down lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. Researchers have been conflicted over a correlation between race or ethnicity and lactose intolerance. This 2019 study said: “On average, 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. The prevalence of lactose intolerance is variable among different ethnicities. It is most common in African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asians, while least prevalent in people of European descent.” It’s worth mentioning that some lactose intolerant people can eat lower-lactose dairy products, such as yogurt, kefir and aged cheese, without symptoms. Taking lactase supplements, or choosing special lactose-free milk are other options. Some people who think they are lactose intolerant may actually be intolerant to the A1 beta-casein — casein is one of the main proteins in milk — produced by many cows. Fortunately, certified A2 milk is becoming increasingly available in this country.
But why not just drink one of the “plant milk” beverages — almond, coconut, soy, rice, hemp, oat and so on? While there’s nothing wrong with these beverages, it’s important to be clear on what nutrients you are getting, and what you are not. For example, soy milk is fortified and has a similar nutrient composition as cow’s milk, including protein content — about 8 grams per cup — but other plant milks have half that amount, or less. If you’re counting on these beverages to meet some of your protein needs and to help you stay satisfied until your next meal, that could be a problem.
Some people choose plant milk beverages because they believe they are healthier, but more accurately, they’re different. Others choose them for ethical reasons. If you are an ethical vegan — in other words, you avoid all animal-based products because you believe it’s unethical to use animals for food, clothing and consumer goods — then of course milk, cheese and other products from cows, sheep and goats are not going to be on your shopping list. Other than these (valid) reasons, there’s no clear advantage.
What about the environment? In general terms, it’s a mistake to label any crop or agricultural sector as being “bad” for the environment. “Agriculture” is not a monolith, and 96% of farms and ranches in the U.S. are family-owned, according to the Department of Agriculture. Having toured many dairy farms around the country and having talked with many dairy farmers, I know how much they care about their animals, and how hard they work to produce a safe, nutritious milk supply while also implementing measures to reduce their environmental impact by managing manure, including installing methane digesters to convert manure to renewable energy.
The bottom line: No, no one must eat dairy foods. We can get those nutrients elsewhere, with extra planning and attention. But if you can tolerate them, dairy foods are tasty, nutritious and convenient. If you enjoy them, keep enjoying them. And if you’re still confused about whether to choose nonfat, low-fat or whole milk, there’s no simple answer. Yes, whole milk dairy has more saturated fat, but research is increasingly finding that saturated fat in dairy doesn’t have the same impact seen from saturated fat from meat.
If you are trying to eat a diet that’s more plant-based, as many people are thanks to some coronavirus-related meat shortages, then dairy can be a good adjunct for meeting protein needs. I find it especially valuable at breakfast, where there are fewer options for getting protein if you’re limiting eggs and meat and don’t care to start your day with beans or tofu. These easy, yogurt-based recipes are a great way to encourage eating more vegetables — which most Americans need to do anyway. I love them as a dip, or as a sauce over roasted or grilled veggies.
Herby yogurt sauce
Makes about 1 cup
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Whisk yogurt, herbs and garlic in a small bowl until combined. Season with salt and pepper and allow to rest for about 30 minutes so flavors can mingle. Keeps for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
Cucumber-dill yogurt sauce
Makes about 2 cups
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill (can also substitute mint, parsley or cilantro)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 medium cucumber
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Peel cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, remove seeds and shred using the large holes on a box grater, or with a food processor.
- Whisk yogurt, olive oil, herbs and garlic in a medium bowl until combined. Stir in the cucumber and season with salt and pepper. Keeps in the refrigerator for up to a day.