Does Dairy Cause Inflammation?
I’m often asked if dairy foods cause inflammation. Actually, the opposite is true. Based on the body of science, dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese do not cause inflammation and can be a part of anti-inflammatory diets.
What Is Inflammation?
Why should you care about inflammation? Chronic, low-grade inflammation results from a continuously out-of-balance immune system, which contributes to the development of various metabolic disorders, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Why You Should Care About Inflammation
People often do not recognize how complex inflammation is. Acute inflammation is what most of us think about when the term "inflammation" comes up. It is the redness, soreness and pain we feel at times in response to illness or injury. For example, if you cut your finger while preparing a meal, your inflammatory system kicks in and you get the immune response needed to heal. Without acute inflammation, our bodies would not function properly.
Chronic, low-grade inflammation results from a constantly out of sync immune system with higher amounts of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules (e.g., C-reactive protein, TNF-α, and IL-6) and lower levels of anti-inflammatory signaling molecules (e.g., adiponectin). This constant imbalance contributes to the development of various metabolic disorders, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The treatment of chronic inflammation is of the utmost importance to help reduce chronic disease risk. It is believed that one of the leading causes for low-grade inflammation is gut leakiness.
Dairy and Its Components
Here is the list of nutrients found in both flavored and unflavored milk:
- Calcium: Helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth.
- Protein: Helps build and repair tissue. Helps maintain a healthy immune system.
- Vitamin D: Helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth. Helps maintain a healthy immune system.
- Vitamin A: Helps keep skin and eyes healthy; helps promote growth. Helps maintain a healthy immune system.
- Pantothenic Acid: Helps your body use carbohydrates, fats and protein for fuel.
- Vitamin B12: Helps maintain healthy immune, blood and nervous system function. Supports normal energy metabolism. Necessary for brain development during pregnancy and infancy; linked to cognitive function in childhood.
- Riboflavin: Helps your body use carbohydrates, fats and protein for fuel.
- Phosphorus: Helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth, supports tissue growth.
- Iodine: Necessary for proper bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy; linked to cognitive function in childhood.
- Selenium: Helps maintain a healthy immune system, helps regulate metabolism and helps protect healthy cells from damage.
- Zinc: Helps maintain a healthy immune system, helps support normal growth and development and helps maintain healthy skin.
- Potassium: Helps maintain a healthy blood pressure and supports heart health. Helps regulate body fluid balance and helps maintain normal muscle function.
- Niacin: Used in energy metabolism in the body.
Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt at a variety of fat levels appear to be neutral to beneficial when it comes to inflammation. Further, both low- and full-fat dairy products, as well as fermented dairy foods, displayed anti-inflammatory activity. Dairy foods provide numerous essential nutrients, but it may be the unique matrix of each dairy food – and the interactions therein – that help explain why dairy foods, at a variety of fat levels, are associated with positive health outcomes.
Evidence That Dairy Does Not Cause Inflammation
A study published in Nutritional Epidemiology that ranked foods based on their inflammatory potential indicated that dairy foods, fruits and vegetables – especially dark, leafy greens and deep-orange vegetables – tend to be anti-inflammatory. Not surprisingly, these foods are abundant in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended healthy eating patterns. This includes the Healthy U.S. Style eating pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean Style eating pattern and the Healthy Vegetarian eating pattern, all of which can be adapted based on cultural and personal preferences.
When it comes to dairy specifically, a systematic review in Journal of the American College of Nutrition, funded by National Dairy Council, evaluated 27 randomized control trials and found that dairy foods (i.e., milk, cheese and yogurt) and dairy proteins (i.e., whey, casein) have neutral to beneficial effects on inflammation.
Let’s look at the key findings of this systematic review:
- Dairy foods have a neutral to beneficial impact on inflammation. Of 19 studies that evaluated dairy products, 10 reported no effect on inflammation while eight reported a reduction in at least one biomarker of inflammation.
- Dairy proteins have a neutral/no impact on inflammation. Of the eight studies that investigated dairy protein intake on inflammation, all eight reported no effect of the intervention, meaning no impact from dairy proteins on inflammation biomarkers.
- This is the third systematic review published in the past three years indicating that dairy foods have a neutral to beneficial effect on inflammation. Here’s what the other two found:
- A systematic review of over 50 clinical trials published in 2017 showed that dairy foods were associated with anti-inflammatory activity in study participants with metabolic disorders such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Further, both low- and full-fat dairy products, as well as fermented dairy foods (e.g., yogurt and cheese), displayed anti-inflammatory activity.
- A second systematic review of randomized clinical trials published in 2019 reported similar results. Consuming milk or dairy products was not linked to inflammation in healthy subjects or those with metabolic abnormalities. The authors of this review stated regarding dairy foods that “the majority of the studies documented a significant anti-inflammatory effect in both healthy and metabolically abnormal subjects.”
How to Manage Inflammation
There are simple ways to combat chronic inflammation. Lifestyle choices like not smoking, stress management, regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep, maintaining a healthy weight and eating well can help.
The Beneficial Effects of Dairy Foods on Inflammation
Dairy foods are part of the “eating well” lifestyle choices that can help manage inflammation. As noted above, dairy foods, especially fermented dairy, seem to provide an anti-inflammatory effect. The natural fermentation process transforms the physical matrix of milk to create cheese or yogurt. It also impacts the nutrition matrix, producing additional bioactives such as peptides and short chain fatty acids. These nutritional and physical changes of the dairy matrix in fermented foods impact digestion, absorption and metabolism which likely play a role in inflammation.
The management of chronic inflammation is of the utmost importance to help reduce chronic disease risk. This should be one of the many reasons to increase the amount of dairy, fruits and vegetables in your diet. Learn how to make every bite and sip count by starting simple with MyPlate and you can read more in this article from Very Well Health.