“Should I be eating dairy?”

 

When people find out I am studying nutrition the questions immediately start pouring out, and the topic of dairy is one of the most popular. There is tons of research on both sides, so I’ll try to sum it up for you.

Evolution and Intolerance

The number 1 argument against dairy is that it isn’t “evolutionary” for humans to consume the milk made from other animals. While it is true that humans are the only species to do this, people have been consuming animal dairy products for hundreds of years, and some research shows that our genes have changed and adapted to accommodate the dairy products we consume.

While some genes may have changed, over 75% of the world’s population is still intolerant to the natural sugars in dairy (also known as lactose intolerance). This is likely due to reduction of lactase production (the enzyme used to digests those sugars) that naturally occurs as we age. Why does it decrease with age? Probably because in distant human history, people didn’t have much dairy in their diet after they stopped breast-feeding.

Calcium and Bones

Because dairy is the optimal food for growing animals, it is packed with beneficial nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, and some B vitamins. Dairy products often get the spotlight for calcium content and bone health – which they should since it can be extremely difficult to meet our daily calcium needs from food without dairy. Several studies have shown that people who consume dairy have improved bone mineral density, and have lower risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. But, other studies have shown that people who are lactose intolerant often have higher bone mineral density and lower risk of osteoporosis. Confusing, right?

More and more research is showing that we should really be focusing on vitamin D when it comes to bone health, but I’ll save that post for another day.

Healthy Fat

While the research on bone health is still “up in the air”, it is pretty well proven that dairy can provide a lot of healthy fats that can decrease heart disease and stroke risk. But there is a disclaimer that comes with this one. The nutrient composition of dairy can differ depending on what the dairy producing animals eat. We only see these healthy fats when dairy comes from animals that were grass fed or pasture raised. And don’t forget, you only get these healthy fats if you buy dairy products with fat in them – low fat and skim won’t have them.

Hormones and IGF-1

Finally, the infamous hormones that people are concerned about. Dairy has been shown to increase a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 is responsible for cell growth – which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It is great for healing damaged tissues and building muscle, but it also means it might help the growth of cancerous cells (that’s why so many people say that dairy causes cancer). While there are few and inconclusive studies showing dairy may increase prostate cancer risk, there are several studies showing dairy can decrease colorectal cancer risk.

In addition to cancer, IGF-1 is also the suspected hormonal link between dairy and acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, and many more.

Conclusions

So back to the original question “Should I be eating dairy?”

Do you have digestive symptoms (like abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea) after eating dairy? If you do, avoid it. You can try lactose-free dairy products be those can also cause trouble sometimes.

Do you have any symptoms of hormone imbalances (like acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, or mood swings)? If you do, try eliminating dairy and see how you respond. Maybe it will help, maybe not, but it is worth a try.

Other than that, it is really personal preference. While there are some potential health risks, the evidence isn’t conclusive and none of the studies were gold-standard clinical trials. If you aren’t sure, maybe you try to eliminate it for a week or two to see if you feel any different and then make your decision. Remember, everyone is different so just because your neighbor won’t touch a piece of cheese doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any either.

However, nutritionally, if you choose not to eat dairy, I would suggest a daily calcium + vitamin D supplement, especially if you are under the age of 30.

Back To School: Senior Year

Happy hump day! It has been a while since my last post, so here is a little life update. Monday marked the first day of classes for this semester…well for most people. I, somehow, got lucky enough to only have classes on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s this semester! It might should like I have quite the relaxed semester, but don’t worry. I will be keeping busy with my senior capstone project, an independent study literature review research paper, applying to grad school/Dietetic Internships, and my new student research position at the Cleveland Clinic. My research job doesn’t start until next week, but I am super excited to explore the research side of nutrition. I will be working with patients who have Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, teaching them how to comply to a Mediterranean diet, and doing some data collection.

Yesterday was my first official day of class so I got to meet all my professors and read several pages of daunting syllabi with all my assignments and exams to look forward to…NOT. My classes this semester are Community Nutrition, Child Nutrition, and Guided Study in Nutrition Practice. While the first day isn’t a great indicator, my favorite class so far is Guided Study. I am going to learn how to talk to patients, ask relevant questions, and figure out how to come up with a proper nutrition diagnoses and action plans based on the patients needs. This class is bringing my Registered Dietitian goals to life; it showed me that the information and skills I am learning will actually be relevant to my job in the future (who knew? J).

On another note, back to school means back to meal planning and packing lunches. I made my meal plan and prepped my meals over the weekend before I got busy with classes, but I am going to have to get back into the groove. I have to remember to be thorough in my planning because popping over to the grocery store is not as easy on campus as it is living at home (learned that the hard way after I forgot eggs this weekend). This week my typical oatmeal is on tap for breakfast, quinoa with ground turkey and sweet potato for lunch, and veggies burgers (recipe coming soon) with guac for dinner.

Since I haven’t been at school since last December because of my study abroad trip, I forgot about all of the free food around campus that can be so tempting! Free donuts if I join the Chess Club, a mini cupcake if I sign up for the Math Club, and even free candy for walking past the Student Dietetic Association table (this one has never made sense to me, haha). I will definitely be arming myself with lots of healthy snacks tomorrow (including apples, string cheese, trail mix, and Skinny Pop) to keep me satiated and to have a healthy alternative when walking past the sugary bribes on the way to class.

I hope to try out some new recipes this weekend and learn some fun nutrition facts in my classes to share next week!

Say Ta-Ta to Trans Fat

New research is always coming out telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat. From red meat giving us cancer to avocados making us skinny, the information we get about food can be confusing. One thing that hasn’t changed is the research regarding trans fat (the type of fat in partially hydrogenated oils). Trans fats are the worst of all the fats in our food and are strongly linked to causing cardiovascular disease.

Fortunately, just about one year ago, the FDA removed partially hydrogenated oils from the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list. That means, from that date, companies have three years to remove all trans fats from their products. Currently, trans fats can be found in products like margarines, fried food, non-dairy creamers, cookies, and crackers.

Until 2018 when trans fat is removed from our food, you should still be checking food labels and preventing consumption of trans fats. It is also important to make sure the ingredients do not include any partially hydrogenated oils. That’s because companies can legally label their product as having zero grams of trans fat as long as they have less than .5 grams per serving. Meaning, there can still be trans fat in a product even if the label says there is none.

Read more about the ban on trans fats here.

Read more about how different types of fat affect the body here.