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Eat or drink enough dairy products and you will have strong bones, a healthy gut and good muscle mass: this is what we are told while growing up. But the nutritional benefits of dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese have recently been under the scanner, and now they pose a dilemma more than anything else. Should you have dairy products or not, that is the big question. Here is everything you need to know about dairy products to make an informed choice.

  1. What are dairy products?
  2. Nutritional value of dairy products
  3. Health benefits of dairy products
  4. Side effects of dairy products
  5. Takeaway

What are dairy products?

Dairy products are basically types of food produced from or containing the milk of mammals, specifically cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, yaks and camels. Facilities that rear cattle for or manufacture dairy products are called dairies. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 150 million households from across the globe are engaged in dairy production, with smallholders in developing countries making for a large part of this production. Global milk production has increased by 58% between 1987 (522 million tonnes) and 2017 (828 million tonnes). 

India is the world’s largest producer of milk with 21% of the global share, followed by the United States of America, China, Pakistan and Brazil. Milk production in the African continent has the slowest growth rate due to poverty and adverse climate conditions. The following are the major types of dairy products consumed throughout the world:

  • Milk (full cream, toned, skimmed, low-fat, fortified, etc)
  • Yoghurt, Curd
  • Butter
  • Cheese, Cottage Cheese/Paneer
  • Cream
  • Custard
  • Ice Cream

Nutritional value of dairy products

Most people know that dairy products are a great source of protein and calcium. But that apart, dairy products also have a high concentration of vitamins and minerals that are needed to maintain good health. Based on the guidelines of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a single eight-ounce serving of milk or any other dairy product has the following nutrients:

  • Protein: Helps build and repair muscle tissues. Most dairy products have high levels of casein, a type of protein that slows down decay and muscle breakdown
  • Calcium: Helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth
  • Riboflavin: A type of vitamin B that supports the immunity, red blood cell production and  aids metabolism
  • Phosphorus: Helps make bones stronger
  • Vitamin D: Helps the body absorb calcium better
  • Pantothenic Acid: Helps convert food into energy
  • Potassium: Regulates fluid balance and helps maintain normal blood pressure levels
  • Vitamin A: Helps maintain good vision and healthy skin
  • Niacin: Also known as  vitamin B3, niacin boosts brain function and improves circulation

Health benefits of dairy products

Dairy products are rich in many major nutrients you need in your diet to be physically fit and strong. Drinking milk and eating dairy products can give you the following benefits.

  1. Dairy products good for bones
  2. Dairy products improve digestion
  3. Dairy products for strong teeth
  4. Dairy products for weight loss
  5. Dairy products to build muscles

Dairy products good for bones

Milk and other dairy products are rich in calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D - all of which are required to boost bone health. Bone health is usually related to genetic history and lifestyle choices, but the former isn’t in your control. For the latter, drinking milk and eating dairy products like yoghurt, cheese, etc is a change you can choose to make. This will strengthen your bones and reduce the risk of developing arthritis later in life, especially for women who have greater chances of suffering from osteoporosis after menopause.

Dairy products improve digestion

Most dairy products have a high concentration of riboflavin, which can aid digestion. But fermented dairy products have a very high probiotic content. Probiotics are active bacteria and yeast cultures that improve and maintain the gut flora levels in your intestines. Consume adequate amounts of probiotic dairy products like Greek yoghurt and Indian curd, and you will see a marked improvement in your digestion, with reduced signs of gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.

Dairy products for strong teeth

There’s more to dental health than brushing your teeth and maintaining oral hygiene. Your teeth need enough calcium, potassium and phosphorus to grow strong, and dairy products are the best way to get a good dose of these. What’s more, most dairy products have high amounts of casein, a type of protein that slows down decay. Consume enough casein and your teeth’s calcium, potassium and phosphorus retention levels will grow exponentially, and reduce enamel erosion and cavities.

Dairy products for weight loss

You might have been told that dairy products can lead to weight gain, but that is not completely true. Research has shown that people with calcium deficiency have a greater mass of fat and find it difficult to control their appetite. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee proved that subjects who consumed three servings of dairy products - and reduced calories from other foods - were able to accelerate both fat and weight loss. Fermented dairy products also increase the body’s metabolic rate, and therefore help lose weight faster.

Dairy products to build muscles

Whey and casein are two protein supplements that are recommended to athletes and those who want to build muscle mass, or older adults to fulfill their dietary needs. Guess where these two are naturally found in combination? In milk and dairy products. Whey is a fast-acting and quick-absorbing protein that aids the building of new muscles, and casein is a slow-release and slow-to-digest protein that reduces muscle breakdown and degeneration. Drink enough milk to build and maintain the right amount of muscle mass you need to stay fit.

Side effects of dairy products

While dairy products are traditionally and scientifically considered to be good for health, there are a number of recent diets and studies that suggest otherwise. These link dairy products to a number of side effects which can cause greater harm than good.

  1. Dairy products can lead to lactose intolerance
  2. Dairy products can lead to heart diseases
  3. Dairy products don’t reduce risk of fractures
  4. Dairy products might increase cancer risks

Dairy products can lead to lactose intolerance

Lactose is a type of natural sugar found in both mother’s milk and cow’s milk, as well as other dairy products. Infants and children produce high levels of an enzyme called lactase, which helps break down lactose, but as we grow older this enzyme production decreases and can lead to lactose intolerance. Since the body cannot break down lactose, it results in symptoms like bloating, gas, upset stomach and diarrhea.

Dairy products can lead to heart diseases

The saturated fat content is quite high in certain types of milks and dairy products like cheese. These are also high in cholesterol, especially bad cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein (LDL). An increased intake of saturated fats and cholesterol-heavy foods can lead to the clogging of blood vessels, which in turn increases the risk of heart diseases. It is for this reason that many people avoid dairy products.

Dairy products don’t reduce risk of fractures

According to an analysis published in the British Medical Journal in 2015, most clinical studies cannot substantially prove that an increased dairy intake can stop or reduce the risk of broken bones and fractures, especially later in life. Another study published in 2014 by the American Medical Association shows that increased milk consumption during teenage years did not lower the risk factors of hip fractures in older adults. These are some of the reasons why more and more people are now opting to depend on calcium and other nutrients from plant-based sources rather than dairy products.

Dairy products might increase cancer risks

The link between dairy products and cancer is not decisive. Many studies prove that intake of dairy products can reduce the risk of cancer, while others insist that an increased intake of dairy products can cause a number of cancers. A case in point is the meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, which suggests - based on the 32 studies it analysed - that a regular consumption of dairy products increases the risk of prostate cancer and is linked to the increased risk of getting lung cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Takeaway

Milk and other dairy products are high in protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals which your body needs to stay fit and healthy. You need dairy products specifically to build strong bones, teeth and muscle mass, and they can also help you manage your weight better. However, if dairy products are doing you more harm - leading to lactose intolerance or weight gain for example - then it is best to cut them off and depend on plant-based sources of the same nutrients.

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