Does dairy cause inflammation? Let’s discuss.
Some say yes, but more recent research says no. A dietitian breaks down the truth.
Welcome to Forkful, a weekly nutrition newsletter encouraging you to break up with dieting—and pick up a fork. Subscribe for regular updates with exclusive recipes, interviews, Q&A’s, product recommendations, and much more!
I’ve been, unfortunately, having some stomach problems lately. Odd stomach pains every time I eat, like my body just isn’t reacting well to whatever I’m digesting. So in my earnest pursuit to figure out what is wrong (when a doctor didn’t seem to have an answer), I found myself reading a bit into an elimination diet, so I gave it a try.
I know, I’m the girl against dieting. But this diet wasn’t geared toward weight loss. It was focused on figuring out what my body was reacting to just so I could feel better.
There are different versions you can do (some as intense as eliminating nightshades and legumes), but I decided to stick to eliminating the popular core four known for causing inflammation: gluten, added sugar, inflammatory oils, and dairy.
After a month I felt immensely better, so I started to add these foods back in—and found that my body was not into having dairy anymore. Whomp whomp.
But as I started to dig through the research behind dairy and inflammation, I stumbled upon—yet again—another toxic diet culture myth. Dairy doesn’t actually cause inflammation.
Interesting, right? And counterintuitive to what we currently believed about dairy. So in my pursuit to actually cover the truth about dairy, I spoke with Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of The Sports Nutrition Playbook, who gave me some key insight into how dairy isn’t an inflammatory food—and what could be causing an upset stomach like mine.
“With the increasing popularity of plant-based and/or plant-focused eating patterns, there has been an increase in the myths around animal foods, specifically beef and dairy,” says Goodson.
This myth comes from the belief that saturated fats (typically found in dairy products and animal foods) can cause inflammation, but that’s actually not true. While some research shows that saturated fat could worsen inflammation that’s already present, it’s not actually the cause of it.
Inflammation is the result of your body’s response to illness or injuries and is triggered when your body tries to fend off the pathogens (bacteria and viruses). Chronic inflammation, in particular, is when your body is constantly triggered by exposure to illness, autoimmune disorders, or even the types of foods you eat.
Some dieting programs stem from the belief that dairy—as well as other animal foods—can cause inflammation in the body, but the evidence is not strong to back such claims.
“If you know anything about science and peer-reviewed scientific evidence, you would know the truth about these topics, but the reality is people read their favorite celebrity's blog over research,” says Goodson. “It usually has more shock value, and for some reason, whether true or false information, that lures people to read more.”
Goodson also points out extensive research that shows how dairy can actually benefit one’s health. One systematic review of 50 clinical trials showed that dairy was actually associated with anti-inflammatory activity, along with another review published by Advances in Nutrition. Subjects of these trials did not link dairy with metabolic abnormalities. More recently, a third systematic review in 2020 published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that dairy and animal foods have natural and even beneficial effects on inflammation.
Some (like myself) may have come to believe this lie about dairy due to how the body reacts to it, but a reaction to dairy is actually something entirely different. It is, in fact, a reaction to lactose during digestion. According to Goodson, this happens when the body does not produce enough lactase, which is a type of enzyme that breaks down lactose—a naturally occurring sugar in milk.
“Humans are born with the ability to break down lactose, but over time lactase production can decrease, making it harder to break down lactose,” says Goodson. “When this happens, some people experience gastrointestinal distress like cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, [and more]. It's important to note that lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy, but an intolerance that can cause gastrointestinal distress. Milk allergies are typically an allergy to one or both of the milk proteins, whey, and casein, and cause an immune response.”
Lactose intolerance is actually a lot more common for individuals than you would expect. In fact, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 68% of people are estimated to have lactose malabsorption.
However, if you don’t have lactose intolerance, dairy is still a beneficial source of not only protein, but also calcium—which is incredibly important for bone health as you age.
“Dairy foods are the best source of calcium in the American diet, which is essential for bone growth, development, and the maintenance of bone mineral density throughout the aging process,” says Goodson. “They also provide a variety of other nutrients including high-quality protein. Cow's milk actually provides 13 essential nutrients and eight grams of high-quality protein in every cup. It is a very affordable and convenient way for many people to get nutrition.”
So before believing some magical diet can fix your body (I fell for it again, sigh), take the time to do your research and maybe talk to a dietitian.
And now, time for cheese.
I have spent the last eight years testing and failing to make the absolute perfect homemade pizza. Originally my motivation was out of pure aggravation because, unless you order a 99-slice of cheese, pizza in New York is actually super expensive. Toppings average at four dollars apiece, and ordering a single pizza would cost upwards of $30. Determined to save some money, I started to make pizza at home. Which turned in over half a decade of testing homemade pizza dough recipes.
When I finally nailed the recipe, I cried. Not even kidding. It felt like a huge win as I cried over my artisinal looking pie. The perfectly crunchy crust. The small air bubbles on the sides. The sturdy bottom that actually holds all of my toppings. It honestly still feels like a miracle to me.
It felt like an impossible feat for so long, but once I finally nailed down the recipe, I tested it multiple times to make sure that this truly was a bulletproof homemade pizza dough recipe that I could share. One that was simple enough that anyone could replicate it at home.