Debating the health effects of dairy


Photo Illustration by Natalie Sandlow

A student looks at dairy options for purchase. Dairy has many effects on the body, but there is no clear consensus among experts on whether dairy is healthy or unhealthy.

Molly Parker and Theresa Lee

Editor’s Note: Prior to our reporting for this article, we expected to identify dairy as either good or bad. However, the information collected in the interviews did not reveal a clear consensus on the health effects of dairy. Our findings are below.

Almost every night for dinner, senior Ariel Shtivelberg eats a bowl of Frosted Flakes in Lactaid milk. For Shtivelberg, chocolate milk, yogurt and cheese also constitute as occasional snacking options.

Shtivelberg is also aware of dairy’s health benefits for bones.

“[Cereal with milk] is such a solid dinner choice,” Shtivelberg said.

Health benefits

Pediatric Dietitian Betsy Hjelmgren said in a phone interview that dairy is essential for good health because it not only contains calcium, which is important for bone development, but also has riboflavin, protein and electrolytes.

Dairy milk is a good source of natural calcium, as opposed to almond or soy milk, in which calcium does not naturally occur, said Hjelmgren.

Despite controversial discussions in the media about possible detriments of dairy, there are no negative effects for people who can safely consume it, according to Hjelmgren.

Potential health risks

Dairy consumption is not recommended at every meal, according to Certified Clinical Nutritionist Marcy Kirshenbaum in a phone interview.

It becomes more difficult for humans to consume dairy with age, said Kirshenbaum. Dairy can cause people to feel unwell and can cause acne along with sinus problems, such as excess mucus.

The nutritional benefits of dairy can be obtained from other sources when considering dairy’s possible health concerns, according to Kirshenbaum. Protein, a nutrient in dairy, is also found in chicken, turkey, beef and fish. Vegetarian options include eggs, beans with rice, nuts, oats, broccoli and sesame seeds.

“Calcium alone isn’t important for the bones,” said Kirshenbaum. “It’s calcium with other minerals and nutrients, and we overemphasize calcium by itself.”

Individual health impact

It is impossible to decide whether dairy is purely good or bad because the necessary amount is dependent on the person’s needs, Integrative Clinical Nutritionist Meg Bowman said in a phone interview.

“So it might be one person who’s like, ‘Yeah, I have a yogurt for breakfast,’ … and then they get the rest of their calcium during the day through tofu or through [a] dark leafy green salad at dinner,” Bowman said.

Since eating habits are individual, Bowman said she does not always recommend dairy to those who need calcium or protein.

“When we start thinking about foods as good or bad, we start thinking about ourselves as good or bad when we eat them, and then all of a sudden we go down a very slippery slope to an unhealthy place,” Bowman said.

“We get so worried about what’s healthy.

“We’re not worried at all about what we’re doing to [people’s] relationship with food,” Bowman said.