Fact or Fiction: Dairy Causes Inflammation
You may have been told to avoid dairy products because they are inflammatory. Before we debunk this common fallacy, let’s take a look and see what inflammation in the body really means and what can cause it.
What is inflammation?1,2
Not all inflammation is created equal. There are two main categories that we can put inflammation into: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s response to sudden outside damage. The immune system sends inflammatory cells to the site of the injury to help begin the healing process. Symptoms are temporary and may include redness, pain, swelling. This is a necessary process that should end with a properly healed wound. Chronic inflammation is long-term that can develop from a variety of factors that are typically occurring inside the body.
What causes inflammation?
The cause of acute inflammation is often due to an injury, such as a cut or scrape to the knee, or an infection. Chronic inflammation can stem from autoimmune disorders, exposure to toxic materials, untreated acute inflammation, and lifestyle factors. Diseases associated with chronic inflammation include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.2 Your chances of developing chronic inflammation become increased with excess alcohol intake, obesity, exercising too intensely without rest, not exercising at all, chronic stress, and smoking.2 Symptoms may include pain, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, weight gain or loss, reoccurring infection, or gastrointestinal issues such as constipation or diarrhea.2
There are a few dietary aspects that can increase risk for chronic inflammation as well. You may be feeling overwhelmed with buzz words like “anti-inflammatory foods,” but inflammation-causing foods are generally foods or beverages containing high amount of refined carbohydrates or excess added sugar, such as soda, or foods with excess unhealthy fats, such as fried foods or fatty cuts of red meat .3 This is not to say that all of these should be avoided entirely, but rather these are the types of foods that should limited in the everyday diet.
Let’s start with addressing sugar. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that less than 10% of our total calories should come from added sugars. For a 2000 calorie diet, this would equate to about 50g (12 teaspoons) of added sugar for the day.4 Having sugar every once in a while is completely okay, but repeatedly consuming excessive sugar can lead to elevated levels of insulin in our body. This increases our risk for weight gain, metabolic disease and chronic inflammation.5
Saturated fats are typically fats found in animal products or certain oils such as coconut or palm oil.6 There is strong evidence that shows that foods too high in saturated fats can cause inflammation by mimicking the actions of something called a lipopolysaccharide. This causes stimulation of immune cells which leads to an inflammatory response.7 A diet that is excessive in saturated fat can lead to weight gain and unhealthy cholesterol levels, which can further lead to an increased risk of heart disease.5, 7 Obesity and heart disease are two large contributors to the presence of chronic inflammation, so it is recommended to keep saturated fat intake to a minimum. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends having less than 10% of total calories derived from saturated fat.4
Then why would dairy cause inflammation?
The myth that dairy causes inflammation may stem from the fact that dairy products can contain saturated fats and that saturated fat can cause inflammation. While yes, some dairy products can contain saturated fat, research has shown that even full fat dairy products do not increase inflammatory biomarkers of inflammation.8
There have been numerous randomized controlled trials that have looked at the effects of both low-fat and full-fat dairy products on markers of inflammation as well. These studies have looked at the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) present, which is a commonly analyzed biomarker that shows the level of inflammation produced by the liver. It has been shown that there were no differences in CRP levels between diets that were high in dairy intake compared to the control diets.8
In one recent meta-analysis, researchers actually found that dairy had a modest anti-inflammatory effect in individuals with metabolic disorders.11 Much of these effects can be attributed to the fermented dairy products such as kefir, yogurt, or sour cream that can easily be incorporated into a healthy diet.9 Additionally, in a recent systematic review the authors concluded that dairy products have been found to be anti-inflammatory in multiple randomized controlled trials. These results were found specifically in interventions with fermented dairy foods or involving adults with metabolic disorders.10
Other misinformation seems to come from the misstatements that lactose will cause inflammation, but this is also not the case.10 Only individuals with lactose intolerance will experience unpleasant symptoms from dairy. Symptoms such as flatulence or abdominal pain may arise in individuals with lactose intolerance because these individuals do not produce enough of the enzyme lactase. Lactase helps digest the carbohydrate lactose, and when there is not enough lactase present to digest the lactose carbohydrates, side effects can occur.11 Lactose intolerance is very manageable and does not mean that dairy products have to be avoided altogether. There are many lactose-free dairy products on the market now to ensure you get all of the benefits of dairy products without any of the side effects from lactose intolerance. Is it important to note that true milk protein allergies are different from lactose intolerance. Eating dairy foods can have an inflammatory effect for this specific population due to the allergic response.12 So, it is best to consult your physician if you think you have a true allergy.
How can we reduce inflammation?
There are several ways to reduce the risk of developing chronic inflammation. You can start by being mindful of common factors such as diet, exercise, managing stress, decreasing alcohol intake, and quitting smoking (if you are a smoker).2 One of the best ways to manage inflammation is to make healthier lifestyle changes. By increasing exercise and eating a balanced diet, our risk of chronic inflammation can decrease.2
Dairy can play an important role here too. There are many nutritious dairy products that should be incorporated into the diet, such as skim or 1% milk, low fat cottage cheese, low fat or nonfat Greek yogurt, or reduced or fat free cheese. These foods are all low in fat and high in protein and can provide essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D and calcium.8
Dairy’s unique nutritional values like probiotics (in fermented products) and its high protein content can help manage inflammation too. As mentioned before, fermented dairy products can be very beneficial. Research has shown that certain probiotic-containing dairy products, such as yogurt and acidified milk, can actually reduce inflammation that occurs after eating a high fat meal.13
Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of chronic inflammation as well and a high-protein diet can help. Research has shown that a high protein diet is an effective and safe tool for weight loss and can actually help prevent obesity and obesity-related diseases.14 Many dairy products offer high-quality protein and can be great additions to utilize for weight management.15 Not only does dairy help boost protein intake for retaining muscle mass, but it also ensures that adequate amounts of calcium are received for bone health.4 Dairy products such as milk, Greek yogurt, lower fat cottage cheese, and whey or casein protein powder or shakes are great to incorporate to a high protein diet, especially after a workout for muscle recovery.
The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 3 daily servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods for adults to reap these unique benefits. So, there is no reason to avoid these foods in fear of increasing inflammation!
- Inflammation: What is it, causes, symptoms & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/21660-inflammation. Published July 28, 2021. Accessed August 29, 2022.
- Pahwa R, Goyal A, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2022 Jun 19]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
- Foods that fight inflammation. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation. Published November 16, 2021. Accessed August 29, 2022.
- S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
- Dario Giugliano, Antonio Ceriello, Katherine Esposito. The Effects of Diet on Inflammation: Emphasis on the Metabolic Syndrome, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Volume 48, Issue 4, 2006, Pages 677-685, ISSN 0735-1097. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2006.03.052.
- Saturated fat. www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats. Published July 20, 2022. Accessed August 29, 2022.
- Fritsche KL. The science of fatty acids and inflammation. Adv Nutr. 2015 May 15;6(3):293S-301S. doi: 10.3945/an.114.006940. PMID: 25979502; PMCID: PMC4424767.
- NDC science summary. https://www.usdairy.com/getmedia/eaf4d72e-452f-4e4e-840b-0e148692d76f/Science-Summary-Whole-Milk-and-Cardiovascular-Disease-2022.pdf
- Bordoni A, Danesi F, Dardevet D, et al. Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57(12):2497-2525. doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.967385
- Nieman KM, Anderson BD, Cifelli CJ. The Effects of Dairy Product and Dairy Protein Intake on Inflammation: A Systematic Review of the Literature. 2020. doi:10.1080/07315724.2020.1800532
- Lactose intolerance. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/lactose-intolerance. Accessed September 7, 2022.
- Milk allergy. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/milk-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20375101
- Burton KJ, Rosikiewicz M, Pimentel G, Bütikofer U, von Ah U, Voirol MJ, Croxatto A, Aeby S, Drai J, McTernan PG, Greub G, Pralong FP, Vergères G, Vionnet N. Probiotic yogurt and acidified milk similarly reduce postprandial inflammation and both alter the gut microbiota of healthy, young men. Br J Nutr. 2017 May;117(9):1312-1322. doi: 10.1017/S0007114517000885. Epub 2017 May 31. PMID: 28558854.
- Moon J, Koh G. Clinical Evidence and Mechanisms of High-Protein Diet-Induced Weight Loss. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2020 Sep 30;29(3):166-173. doi: 10.7570/jomes20028. PMID: 32699189; PMCID: PMC7539343.
- Dariush Mozaffarian, Dairy Foods, Obesity, and Metabolic Health: The Role of the Food Matrix Compared with Single Nutrients, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 10, Issue 5, September 2019, Pages 917S–923S, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz053