Dairy is no stranger to controversy.
Some people believe it’s inflammatory, while others profess that it’s anti-inflammatory.
This article explains why some people have linked dairy to inflammation and whether there’s evidence to support this.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is like a double-edged sword — a little is good, but too much for too long is harmful.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to pathogens like bacteria and viruses, or injuries like cuts and scrapes.
In response to these inflammatory triggers, your body releases special chemical messengers, such as histamine, prostaglandins, and bradykinin, that signal an immune response to fend off pathogens or heal and repair damaged tissue (
The inflammatory response may be acute or chronic, with acute inflammation lasting a few days, and chronic inflammation lasting longer than 6 weeks (
Though acute inflammation is your body’s first line of defense against injury or infection, chronic inflammation can be harmful and damage your body’s tissues and organs.
Chronic inflammation can result from untreated infections or injuries, an autoimmune disorder like rheumatoid arthritis, or your lifestyle habits — especially your diet.
An acute inflammatory response generally protects you from infection, injury, or disease, but it can become problematic and harmful if it becomes chronic.
Dairy and its components
Dairy foods are produced from the milk of mammals like cows and goats and include cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream, and kefir.
Milk and dairy products contain many important nutrients, such as:
- Protein. Milk and yogurt provide protein that’s easily digested and absorbed by your body (
- Calcium. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are rich sources of calcium, a mineral necessary for proper nerve and muscle function as well as for bone health (4).
- Vitamin D. Many countries fortify cow’s milk with vitamin D, a vitamin essential for bone health, immune function, and controlling inflammation (5).
- Probiotics. Yogurt and kefir contain probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that promote gut and immune health (
- B vitamins. Milk and yogurt are good sources of riboflavin, or vitamin B-2, and vitamin B-12, both of which support energy production and nerve function (7, 8).
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Dairy products are among the richest sources of CLA, a type of fatty acid linked to fat loss and other health benefits (
In addition, full fat milk and dairy products are rich in saturated fats, and this is why these products are thought to cause inflammation.
While saturated fats don’t necessarily cause inflammation, they may worsen inflammation that’s already present by increasing the absorption of inflammatory molecules called lipopolysaccharides (
Moreover, people may experience bloating, cramping, and diarrhea when consuming dairy and link those symptoms with inflammation — though it’s likely that these symptoms are instead related to an inability to digest the milk sugar called lactose (
In any case, many people avoid milk and dairy products for fear they promote inflammation.
Milk and dairy products contain many important nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and protein. However, dairy has been linked to increased inflammation and certain inflammatory conditions like acne.
Dairy and inflammation
It’s clear that consuming certain foods, including fruits and vegetables, can decrease inflammation, while other foods like processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and fried foods can promote inflammation (
These mixed conclusions are a result of differences in study design and methods, the demographic and health status of study participants, and diet composition, among others.
A review of 15 randomized controlled trials from 2012 to 2018 found no pro-inflammatory effect of milk or dairy product intake in healthy adults or in adults with overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, or metabolic syndrome (
On the contrary, the review noted that dairy intake was associated with a weak anti-inflammatory effect in these populations.
These findings are similar to an earlier review of 8 randomized controlled studies that observed no effect of dairy intake on markers of inflammation in adults with overweight or obesity (
Another review in children ages 2–18 found no evidence that consuming whole fat dairy foods increased inflammatory molecules, namely tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6 (
While current evidence suggests no link between dairy and inflammation, more research is necessary to determine whether individual dairy products — and which components or nutrients of those products — promote or decrease inflammation.
For example, observational studies have linked yogurt intake to a moderately decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, a disease associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, whereas cheese intake was linked to a moderately higher risk of the disease (
Most research suggests that milk and dairy products do not promote inflammation. However, more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn.
The bottom line
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to infection or injury.
While acute inflammation is necessary to protect and heal your body, chronic inflammation can do the opposite and harm your tissues and organs.
Whole milk and full fat dairy products are thought to cause inflammation because they contain saturated fats, have been implicated in the development of acne, and may cause bloating and stomach upset in people who are lactose intolerant.
Though much is to be learned about the role individual dairy products have on inflammation, most research suggests that dairy products as a group don’t promote inflammation — and that they may, in fact, reduce it.