Dairy is often linked to inflammation, but what does the research say?
One of the best reviews on dairy to date comes from a 2017 paper. Researchers analyzed 52 human studies on dairy and inflammation and assigned inflammatory scores based on the changes in biomarkers measured (1). After crunching the data, the overall report indicated that dairy had anti-inflammatory activity for almost everyone, so let’s dig a little deeper.
Anti-Inflammatory for Almost Everyone!
Who benefited the most from dairy?
Healthy individuals and even those with metabolic disease. Dairy’s anti-inflammatory properties were most significant for healthy individuals and, fascinatingly, even those with metabolic disease (e.g., obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease).
These anti-inflammatory properties are is likely due to dairy’s rich profile of bioavailable protein, healthy fats, vitamins A and E, carotenoids, and micronutrients like iodine, zinc, and selenium that support antioxidant activity and an anti-inflammatory state (2).
Who benefited the least?
People with dairy allergies. Not surprisingly, dairy consumption in those with diagnosed milk allergies (not lactose intolerance) had the worst inflammatory outcomes. People with a dairy allergy should avoid all dairy.
What about lactose intolerance?
Most of the world population (~68%) is lactose intolerant. The sugar or carbohydrate in dairy is lactose, which requires the enzyme lactase to digest.
Fermented dairy products tend to be tolerated better because the fermentation process greatly reduces the amount of lactose and increases beneficial bacteria that can aid in digestion of lactose (3).
What about people with gastrointestinal conditions?
Research on dairy intake and GI issues is conflicted (4). Some studies show no link and others show a pro-inflammatory effect. The impact of dairy on inflammation in GI disorders is highly individualized.
Some additional factors to consider are the source (fermented vs unfermented), the quality of the source, and how well the person tolerates dairy.
Types of Dairy and Inflammation
Now that we know who’s most likely to benefit from dairy, let’s look at some of the factors when considering dairy.
Fermented vs. Unfermented?
Both fermented and unfermented dairy can be anti-inflammatory, but fermented dairy (i.e. yogurt, cheese, and kefir) may have a greater impact. Consistent research shows that fermented dairy supports a healthy gut flora.
Whole Milk vs. Low-fat or Skim?
Both high-fat and low-fat dairy were anti-inflammatory in the 2017 review of 52 human studies (1). In addition, high-fat dairy contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that has been shown to neutralize the effects of saturated fat and is linked to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, and cancer (5). Additional studies indicate low-fat milk products may not be as satisfying and may make you eat more food throughout the day.
Regular Milk vs A2 Milk?
The two main types of milk protein are whey and casein. Casein makes up roughly 80% of the protein in milk. Then there are 4 casein subtypes, beta caseins, specifically A1 and A2 beta-casein, are the most abundant (6). Conventional milk even if organic and/or grass-fed is a combination of A1/A2 casein. Goats, sheep, camels, and buffalo are predominately A2 milk. Human milk is A2-exclusive.
Companies like The a2 Milk Company produce and sell milk products containing only A2 beta-casein. Milk from cows, without the A1 beta-casein gene, is used exclusively. A1 and A2 are similar, with only one difference at position 67 in the amino acid sequence. Research suggests that the structural difference has a significant impact on digestion.
The theory is that digestion of A1 beta-casein, but not A2, releases beta-casomorphin 7 (BCM-7). BCM-7 is an opioid peptide that’s believed to be an antecedent to various health problems like gut issues, heart disease, type 1 diabetes, autism, and cognitive decline (7).
Humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk. Many populations throughout the world today consume little or no dairy while having some of the lowest bone fracture rates.
Dairy is a great source of protein, fat, slow-digesting carbohydrates, calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, potassium, phosphorus, and conjugated linoleic acid.
Despite dairy being linked to inflammation for years, the jury is still out and this may not be the case for everyone. Personally, I don’t think everyone is better off without dairy, but I do think that everyone should do their due diligence to assess whether dairy is safe for you.
The link between dairy and inflammation depends on the person, their gut health, and if they have an allergy or sensitivity. If you aren’t sure where to begin your gut health and dairy journey, book a free discovery call to see how I can help you optimize your health.