Photo courtesy of Stocksy/Sergey Filimonov.
Photo courtesy of Stocksy/Sergey Filimonov.

What’s the Deal with Dairy? Two Nutritionists Weigh In

8 min read

Dairy has long been at the center of controversy as experts debate the merit of its nutritional content for kids and adults alike. It’s been the scapegoat for digestive issues, hormone disruption and even acne. Headlines like “It’s Time to Reconsider Low-Dairy Diets” and “Should You Be Drinking Milk?” and “I Quit Dairy and My Adult Acne Vanished” have flooded the wellness world, leaving those without a known sensitivity to it questioning whether they should stock up on alt-milk options instead. But what all this chatter has ultimately led to is a bit of confusion. So, to clear some of that up, we tapped two nutritionists for their thoughts on what we should really be doing with dairy.

Let’s start with the basics: What’s the difference between non-fat and full-fat (and those in between)?

Dairy products can be purchased in a few ways: skim, one percent, two percent or whole. Each variety of milk has a similar nutrient profile with one major difference—fat. Skim or non-fat milk is exactly what it sounds like (devoid of fat), while whole milk is considered to be full-fat or in this case is approximately 3.25 percent fat. Per eight fluid ounces, skim milk contains zero grams of fat while whole milk contains eight grams. Both skim and whole milk, as well as the other types (one percent and two percent) have carbohydrates, protein, calcium and vitamin D.

Is milk the only place to get vitamin D and calcium?

Calcium and vitamin D are two important nutrients found in dairy and consuming dairy is an easy way to include them in your diet. However, these nutrients are also found in a variety of non-dairy foods, so if you decide to limit or avoid dairy then you’ll want to add in other foods with similar nutrients. “Calcium is in green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, bok choy, turnip greens and spinach, soy products, such as tofu or soy milk, and fortified foods, like orange juice and cereals,” explains Natalie Rizzo, MS, RDN.

Vitamin D is also found in foods other than dairy, but it can be a challenge to get enough from diet alone whether you consume dairy or not explains Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN, and owner at Sarah Gold Nutrition. “Milk and other dairy products are often fortified with vitamin D, but even drinking three glasses of milk per day doesn’t get you what you need and most people need to get their vitamin D from either spending time in the sun or through supplements (or a combination). Other food sources of vitamin D include salmon and other fatty fish, fortified juice and breakfast cereals, some eggs and now even some mushrooms,” Sarah explains.

One thing to note? Plant-based milks don’t offer these nutrients unless they have been fortified. “Check the nutrition facts panel on any alternative milk products if you’re counting on them for calcium, protein and vitamin D,” Sarah says.

Which type of milk is the healthiest?

The true answer? It all depends, because everyone is different, from body composition to life and fitness goals. Natalie says, “If you’re on a weight loss journey, drinking non-fat milk might be a better option for you.” Why? Because the nutrient profile is similar to the full-fat variety, without the, well, full-fat. “It still has plenty of protein and the nine essential vitamins and minerals,” she says.

On the other hand, recent research has pointed to potential health benefits from eating full-fat dairy. But, it’s not as straight-forward as we would like. “For a long time, the recommendation has been to choose low-fat or non-fat dairy to limit saturated fat in your diet due to the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease,” says Sarah. “However, new research suggests that dairy fat may not be as problematic for health as saturated fat from meat. Some smaller studies even suggest potential benefits from eating full-fat dairy in relation to women’s fertility and athletic performance.”

But doesn’t fat help to fill you up?

Yes! “Consuming some fat at meals, whether that’s from dairy or other sources, can help us to eat less overall because it’s more satisfying,” Sarah explains. And sometimes, non-fat options contain other ingredients that have been linked to health issues. “Added sugar in some low-fat dairy products like yogurts may be even more detrimental to health than the fat,” Sarah continues. “That said, until we have more concrete research, I still consider dairy fat to be part of our total saturated fat intake, which should be limited to less than 10 percent of calories. So it’s important to look at your entire diet. If you enjoy a full-fat yogurt for breakfast or a full-fat latte mid-afternoon, limit saturated fat from other sources like cheese and red meat.”

How to read the labels on all those milk choices

Now that we understand the difference between non-fat and full-fat dairy, let’s dive into the other claims you might see on a milk or yogurt label.

Label 1: rbGH-free

Sara explains that “rbGH-free, means that the dairy farmers don’t inject this synthetic growth hormone (also called rbST) into their cows.” That seems straight-forward enough, right? But why did we need that hormone in the first place? “The hormone was originally introduced to help dairy cows grow bigger, faster, and ultimately produce more milk,” Sarah says. “The problem is that research has linked this hormone to many health concerns for both the cow and humans consuming cow’s milk. Cows given this hormone have higher rates of mastitis, which leads to a need for antibiotics.”

This increase in antibiotic use comes with many concerns since antibiotic resistance can be a serious problem for humans. “In addition, the cows treated with rgBH may pass on more growth hormones to humans, which can have negative health effects including increased risk of cancer,” Sarah says. But don’t let this scare you away from drinking milk if it doesn’t bother you, however. “The good news is, most milk is now rgBH-free, but it is something to look for as there are a small percentage of dairy farms that still use it.”

Label 2: Organic

The use of the term “organic” requires that the farmer follow specific guidelines pertaining to the production of the food. This is a regulated term that spans multiple points of the production process. By definition, the use of the organic label requires that the milk is from a cow that has not been given growth hormones. Antibiotics are avoided unless absolutely necessary for the survival of the animal or to prevent suffering.

The organic label also ensures that the feed provided to the cow is also 100 percent organic and free of hormones or other additives that do not meet the organic standards. “While it’s more expensive, choosing organic is an easy way to know you’re not consuming potentially harmful chemicals, growth hormones, and antibiotics,” Sarah explains.

And, if you’re considered about pesticide use, Sarah recommends choosing organic full-fat dairy. “Because many pesticides are fat-soluble, meaning they are stored in the fat of the animal, choosing organic full-fat dairy may be more important than if you choose to eat fat-free dairy.”

Label 3: Grass Fed

Surprise! This term isn’t government-regulated, so essentially it means very little to the consumer. “We are starting to see more ‘grass fed’ claims on dairy, which actually isn’t a government-regulated term, so it may mean different things depending on the brand,” Sarah says. The term grass fed also doesn’t mean organic, so the confusion continues. “Typically it means that the cows have access to a pasture where they can roam and nibble on grass, but they can still be fed grain.”

An industry group, American Grassfed Association, has created a new grass fed labeling certification with specific standards farmers must meet in order to use the label. The grass fed certification is confirmed through the industry group and not through a government-regulatory agency, so it helps to do your research into the company and product if you’re concerned about the feed.

Dairy and acne—is there a connection?

Recently, dairy has been a topic of conversation when it comes to skin. A headline in a recent online Vogue article read “I Gave Up Dairy—And My Adult Acne Vanished in Under a Month.” So is there any truth to this? “Some research shows an association between dairy consumption and acne, but a cause and effect relationship has not been identified,” Sarah says.

Many draw the connection between dairy and acne because acne is an inflammatory condition and the thought is that hormones in milk may contribute to this increase in inflammation. “Some scientists speculate that it is hormone-related either from the high levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) or the naturally occurring anabolic steroids found in cow’s milk,” says Sarah.

Or the inflammation may be due to changes in the gut that could indicate a dairy intolerance. “Those with lactose intolerance could experience skin conditions related to a change in their gut microbiome from eating dairy,” Sarah explains. But, because there’s not quite enough research on a causal relationship, you have to take a personalized approach to the dairy + acne connection. “Everyone’s skin is different and removing dairy may help resolve some people’s skin conditions but not others,” Sarah says. “If you have problematic acne or other skin conditions, you may decide to try removing dairy to see if it helps, but make sure to do so in isolation of other changes so you know if it’s really the dairy that’s the problem.”


Sensitive to dairy? Try our easy, at-home almond milk recipe.

About The Author

Allison Knott

Allison Knott

Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD is a registered dietitian and board certified specialist in sports nutrition based in New York City. Allison is an experienced nutrition consultant, speaker, and writer. She has a demonstrated history working in the food and beverage industry supporting corporate wellness initiatives. Allison has been featured in multiple television segments and in national publications including EatingWell, POPSUGAR, TIME Health, Shape, and Boston Magazine. In 2016, Allison started ANEWtrition, a consulting practice dedicated to delivering authentic, relatable, and consistent nutrition and wellness solutions.



Sign up to get the latest well insiders stories delivered to your inbox every week.


I Tried Cold Showers for Stress & Anxiety—Here's What Happened
I Tried Drinking Collagen Water for a Week—And Here's What Happened
Mask Monday: This DIY Apple Cider Vinegar Detox Will Make Your Hair So Soft
I Tried the Conscious Cleanse, a 14-Day Whole Foods Based Cleanse—Here’s What Happened
I Tried An Over-the-Head Pillow—And Here's What Happened
Why Natural Beauty Brands Are Ditching Controversial Ingredient Phenoxyethanol
The 5 Crystals You Should Use to Start Your Personal Collection, Says Gwyneth-Approved Crystal Author
5 Crystal Energies to Use to Boost Your Relationships
7 Black Women Making Waves in Alternative Medicine
Try This Himalayan Salt + Lime Tonic For an Adrenal Boost
[wpforms id="5237"]
[wpforms id="5211" title="false" description="false"]