Does Dairy Cause Inflammation?

Many people trying to manage inflammatory conditions read food list after food list to avoid on the Anti-Inflammatory Dietary style, and come to wonder… Does dairy cause inflammation? And believe me–their confusion is completely warranted.

Years of marketing from the dairy industry have undoubtedly ensured that you’re taught that milk consumption is incredibly healthy for your bones and yogurt for your gut. Milk is rich in calcium and vitamin D, which are beneficial to bone health, while the probiotics in yogurt keep your digestive system strong.

The problem is that there are conflicting recommendations based on conflicting scientific evidence. So let’s dive into what the science says and how you can determine if dairy is inflammatory for your unique needs.

Don’t forget to grab the Anti-Inflammatory Diet Quick-Start Guide! It’s a free guide to get started with foods that are and aren’t on the Anti-Inflammatory dietary style, how to know, and a 3-day Meal Plan! Snag it at the bottom of the post–Keep reading! ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ‘‡

does dairy cause inflammation

What is inflammation?

Your immune response is activated when your body is exposed to harmful agents such as viruses, bacteria, poisonous substances, or when you are injured. Inflammatory cells and cytokines are sent out by your immune system as first responses, stimulating additional inflammatory cells, which is acute inflammation.

These cells initiate an inflammatory response to trap microbes and other harmful substances or start recovering the wounded tissue. Pain, swelling, bruising, and redness may happen due to this.

However, inflammation has an impact on physiological systems that are not visible when poor lifestyle habits turn into low-grade inflammation that leads to chronic inflammation.

If left untreated, chronic inflammation can cause your immune response to attack your body’s surrounding cells and organs, causing an increased risk of diseases including autoimmune conditions, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.

does dairy cause inflammation

Do we need dairy?

As mentioned, we’ve been fed the line that we need dairy for specific vitamins and minerals in our diet for decades. Consuming milk or other dairy foods can, in fact, provide some health benefits in the way of important nutrients that we may be missing elsewhere.

However, this is just marketing that’s been given to us by the national dairy council and association. We don’t need to eat dairy-containing foods for our survival. In fact, no adult mammal needs milk by the time it’s reached adulthood.

We can absolutely get calcium and Vitamin D from other sources than dairy. For example, an 8 oz glass of milk has 300 mg of calcium in it. You can get the same amount in a glass of soy milk, 3/4 cup of almonds, 1 1/2 cups dried figs, 2 cups of cooked kale, 2 cups of bok choy, or 6 oz of tofu. There are also many other options for a slightly smaller amount of calcium, but when they’re added up, you can obviously go without dairy to get your RDA of calcium.

As far as Vitamin D sources, from late March to September, you can get your daily dose by spending about 10 minutes a day outdoors. Year-round good sources of Vitamin D include:

  • Oily fish
  • Egg yolks
  • Red meat (that is organic and grass-fed)
  • Anti-inflammatory foods that are fortified
  • A Vitamin D3 supplement

A Vitamin D supplement (if you choose not to consume dairy) may be a really good decision since it’s estimated between 59% to 77% of the population is Vitamin D deficient.

So, no, we don’t need dairy, but it has become a staple ingredient across the globe. The surge in dairy-free diets, however, has prompted food companies to step up and start producing many other dairy substitutes that rival taste and texture of traditional dairy products.

does dairy cause inflammation

The link between dairy and inflammation

The connection between dairy and inflammation has been established by some clinical evidence in the past. However, many studies have also shown decreases in inflammation with dairy intake as well.

Also, many of these studies don’t take into account that multiple variables may contribute to the possible inflammatory effects of dairy products. Some factors exacerbate it, while some may help combat inflammation. The primary components of dairy products are given below.

Saturated fats and sugar content

When it comes to dairy, the main 2 initial factors in inflammation are the sugar (lactose) and saturated fat in cow’s milk. According to research, saturated fats can promote inflammation in the body (although it’s been shown in newer research that this largely depends on the quality of the source, ie, organic grass-fed vs feed-lot cows.)

Sugar has been found to be inflammatory in and of itself, but it also causes a dramatic spike in blood sugar levels, which also increases inflammatory markers.

Even though saturated fat may not be as inflammatory as previously assumed (again, depending on the quality), certain conditions can be exacerbated by consuming dairy because of the saturated fat.

Milk proteins: casein and whey

Dairy-containing foods have two proteins present from the milk it was derived from: casein and whey. Whey is a very popular type of protein powder in the fitness world because of its ability to induce protein synthesis after workouts.

However, both proteins have been vilified in the past as pro-inflammatory due to some studies showing they increased inflammatory markers.

A very recent systematic review of these studies says these beliefs are simply not true. That the literature reviewed indicates that dairy has either a neutral effect or beneficial.

Another factor brought up in the last several years is that different cow breeds produce milk with different types of protein: A1 or A2. Studies have shown that A2 milk does not promote inflammation in the ways that A1 was shown.

does dairy cause inflammation

What are dairy inflammation symptoms?

Certain types of dairy products may trigger inflammation.

Signs and symptoms of a possible dairy sensitivity include:

  • bloating
  • changes in bowel motions, or
  • any other form of digestive distress after consuming dairy
  • changes in your skin, such as an increase in acne or skin rashes such as eczema and psoriasis
  • joint pain or inflammation

Dairy intolerance or sensitivity

A dairy sensitivity does trigger an immune response, but it’s usually a delayed reaction. Dairy intolerance is when allergen markers are not present for milk allergy but there is still an inflammatory response in the body with dairy consumption.

Dairy allergy

Milk and milk-containing foods provoke an inflammatory, immunological response in those with a milk allergy, even if the reaction is moderate.

People who are allergic to milk are sensitive to either casein or whey, the proteins found in dairy products. According to prior studies, more than half of the individuals with celiac disease also have a casein sensitivity because casein has a similar molecular structure to gluten.

So if you have an adverse reaction to gluten, you are more likely to have the same with milk and dairy products because milk proteins frequently cross-react with gluten in the gut.

Milk drinking or intake of milk-based products causes a direct inflammatory reaction from the immune system in people with a true dairy allergy, with symptoms that vary from minor to life-threatening.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is not life-threatening. Lactose intolerance is caused by an inadequacy of the enzyme (lactase) needed to digest lactose. As a result, when lactose intolerant individuals consume milk, they experience mild gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea. (These problems are caused by undigested lactose, not by a dairy allergy.

does dairy cause inflammation

What dairy foods can I have on the Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Here are your best options for dairy intake:


Yogurt can be a good choice for dairy as long as it’s purchased in plain, unflavored form, and also organic. Yogurt is thought to reduce inflammation by enhancing the impartiality of the intestinal lining via probiotics and also has nearly all the lactose (sugar) removed naturally via the fermentation process.

Probiotics provide several health advantages, including improved immune function and a robust and less porous intestinal gut lining. Consequently, it would reduce the odds of inflammation owing to the entrance of toxins and chemicals into the body through the stomach lining.

Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir are the primary sources of probiotics. Studies reported that consuming them frequently may prevent or limit inflammation by strengthening gut health.

Cottage cheese and ricotta cheese

Cottage and ricotta cheese are good choices in their most natural form (these frequently have thickeners added). And the best choice is from organic grass fed cows.

does dairy cause inflammation

Other cheeses

As with all other dairy choices, cheeses that are organic and from grass fed cows are the best option due to the balanced ratios of omega 3:6. Cheeses also have considerably less lactose than other dairy products, and some that are lactose sensitive have found they can consume some cheeses and not have symptoms.

Goat cheese and feta

Although goat cheese (which includes feta) isn’t from cows, and therefore doesn’t contain the same proteins, it is a good choice to substitute in on recipes when cow’s dairy foods aren’t an option.

Feta doesn’t typically have the same strong flavor that other goat cheeses do, and it’s a staple in Mediterranean fare.

does dairy cause inflammation

How do I choose dairy products?

Dairy has long been a contentious issue in nutrition, and whether it is beneficial or causes inflammation could largely depend on the sources of dairy and the quality consumed.

Full fat, grass-fed, raw dairy is the best choice in nutrients, digestibility, and bioavailability, whereas pasteurized fat-free milk is heavily processed and has very little nutritional value.

The lactase enzyme is one of the vital enzymes lost when raw dairy is cooked and pasteurized. It results in the symptoms of lactose intolerance because of the inability to digest the dairy sugar lactose without it.

Many people believe that raw dairy products are better tolerated than pasteurized dairy products, with many experiencing improved skin and immunological function and relief from dietary intolerances.

I will also add that per the Mediterranean Diet guidelines (which are like the basic blueprint to an Anti-Inflammatory Diet), dairy is allowed, but in moderation.

Bottom line: Should I have dairy?

Although dairy may have anti-inflammatory advantages in certain people, type and quality are essential factors to consider when evaluating dairy’s involvement in inflammation.

So to determine if you should include it in an anti-inflammatory diet, answer these questions:

  1. Are you lactose intolerant? (If yes, exclude it.)
  2. Do you have a milk allergy? (If yes, exclude it.)
  3. Do you have celiac or skin conditions like rashes and eczema? (If yes, exclude it.)
  4. Do you have IBS or IBD, or even stomach or digestive issues? (If yes, I recommend an elimination diet to know if you should exclude it for sure.)

As always when it comes to questions about allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities to food, the best place to start is with your doctor.

And the combination of anti-inflammatory lifestyle choices and an elimination diet with the guidance of a nutritionist is the best way to get answers for your specific needs when it comes to building your personal Anti-Inflammatory Diet.

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does dairy cause inflammation
Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

Author: Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

Laura is a Nutrition Specialist and Certified Health Coach with a Master of Science in Nutrition. Her goal is to help women reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, and regain natural energy with an Anti-Inflammatory Diet + Lifestyle.

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