Dairy foods and inflammation

Dairy foods have long been celebrated for their role in developing and maintaining peak bone mass because of their rich calcium, phosphorus and other mineral content. More recently, researchers have noted the beneficial role of whey protein (found in dairy foods) for maintaining and increasing lean muscle mass, as well as improved function and mobility in older adults aged >65 years.1

Historically, dairy has been incorrectly labeled as ‘pro- inflammatory’ and associated with adverse health issues including, weight gain, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, recent research has in fact found that dairy can actually be beneficial for body composition and reducing inflammation.2,3,4

Various sources have suggested that high fat dairy foods may be linked to a state of chronic inflammation, which leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and subsequent contribution to overweight and obesity.5 Furthermore, dairy foods including milk, cheese and yoghurt have been labeled as ‘inflammation causing’ or ‘mucus producing’ - both of which lack substantial evidence.

Dairy fat and inflammation

Recent scientific opinion now believes the aforementioned adverse health effects, originally associated with saturated fat are actually due to other factors.6 Research has found that saturated fat within dairy foods does not contribute to systemic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, raised LDL, atherosclerosis and high blood pressure.2,5,7 Drouin and colleagues performed a comprehensive review of current randomised controlled trials, investigating the effects of full fat and low fat dairy products and their impact on markers of health. They found no significant association between consuming full fat dairy products and increased LDL cholesterol, or markers of inflammation, compared with low fat dairy in healthy adults.7 In this same study, individuals who ate cheese had slightly lower LDL concentrations in the blood, suggesting the bioactive peptides, minerals and fat found in cheese could be providing protective effects.7

Low or full fat dairy has also been found to positively improve blood pressure in healthy individuals and individuals with hypertension, subsequently reducing inflammation, most likely due to the unique combination of protein, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and other micronutrients working simultaneously or independently.9,11 As recent research shows, full fat dairy is not associated with the adverse health outcomes in healthy or at risk individuals as previously thought.

Fermentable foods and gut health

In addition to the mounting evidence supporting high fat dairy foods, another rapidly growing area of interest is the association between fermentable foods and gut health. Bordoni and colleagues performed a systematic review of over 52 clinical trials of dairy products and inflammation, finding both low and high fat dairy foods had positive anti-inflammatory effects due to the poly-unsaturated fat and other dairy nutrients. In particular, fermented dairy products such as yoghurt, lead to significant anti-inflammatory actions, especially in those with cardiovascular disease.2 More research is needed to ascertain the exact reasons underlying such results; however, the role of lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria is one of the proposed mechanisms reducing inflammation and supporting optimal gut health and immunity.2 Consideration to the role of bioactive proteins and glycans that interact with our gut bacteria may also promote anti-inflammatory activity.2

Dairy allergy and lactose intolerance

People experiencing a medically diagnosed allergic reaction to dairy protein should seek appropriate dairy alternatives.2 Those experiencing gastrointestinal upset associated with poor tolerance or sensitivity to lactose, can still consume small amounts of dairy, particularly if spread over the day and eaten as part of a whole meal.

Further research into the beneficial role of dairy on inflammation is welcome, however there is no evidence to suggest that dairy products cause systemic inflammation, weight gain or associated metabolic diseases as previously hypothesised. Individuals should enjoy dairy with the confidence that dairy foods are not harmful, and are in fact beneficial to health when eaten as part of a well-balanced, varied and minimally processed style of eating across all stages of life.

  • References
    1. Deutz, N. E., Bauer, J. M., Barazzoni, R., Biolo, G., Boirie, Y., Bosy-Westphal, A., Calder, P. C. (2014). Protein intake and exercise for optimal muscle function with aging: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group. Clin Nutr, 33(6), 929-936. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2014.04.007

    2. Bordoni, A., Danesi, F., Dardevet, D., Dupont, D., Fernandez, A. S., Gille, D., Vergères, G. (2017). Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 57(12), 2497-2525. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2014.967385

    3. Chen, M., Pan, A., Malik, S.V and Hu, FB. (2012). Effects of dairy intake on body weight and fat: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;96:735–47.

    4. Kratz, M., Baars, T. & Guyenet (2013). The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease Eur J Nutr: 52: 1. doi:10.1007/s00394-012-0418-1

    5. Chen, M.,Li, Y., Sun,O., Pan, A., Manson, J.E., Rexrode,5 K.E., Willett, W.C., Rimm, E, B and Hu, F.B. (2016). Dairy fat and risk of cardiovascular disease in 3 cohorts of US adults; Am J Clin Nutr 2016 doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.134460.

    6. Lawrence, G. D. (2013). Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Adv. Nutr. 4:294–302.

    7. Drouin-Chartier, J. P., Cote, J. A., Labonte, M. E., Brassard, D., Tessier-Grenier, M., Desroches, S.. Lamarche, B. (2016). Comprehensive Review of the Impact of Dairy Foods and Dairy Fat on Cardiometabolic Risk. Adv Nutr, 7(6), 1041-1051. doi: 10.3945/an.115.011619

    8. 8. Bordoni, A., Danesi, F., Dardevet, D., Dupont, D., Fernandez, A. S., Gille, D., Vergeres, G. (2015). Dairy Products and Inflammation: A Review of the Clinical Evidence. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 0. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2014.967385

    9. McGrane, M. M., Essery, E., Obbagy, J., Lyon, J., MacNeil, P., Spahn, J., & Van Horn, L. (2011). Dairy Consumption, Blood Pressure, and Risk of Hypertension: An Evidence-Based Review of Recent Literature. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 5(4), 287–298. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12170-011-0181-5

    10. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian dietary guidelines. Canberra: NHMRC; 2013

    11. Boos, C.J & Lip G.Y (2006). Is hypertension an inflammatory process? Current pharmaceutical Design,12(13):1623-35.