To set the record straight once and for all, we spoke with registered dietitian Caroline Margolis, RD, who shares why the idea that dairy is “bad” for your gut is a huge myth. Plus, she delves into the science-backed evidence that demonstrates why probiotic-rich dairy products can actually promote a healthy microbiome. However, like most foods, there are a few exceptions and things to keep in mind before you dig right in—like who really should avoid dairy for digestive health reasons. More on all of the above from Margolis ahead.
- Caroline Margolis, RD, registered dietitian
How dairy can help support a healthy gut microbiome, according to a registered dietitian
Time and time again, we’ve learned that it’s important to take most of what you come across on social media with a grain of salt, especially regarding dairy and your gut. “It seems to be a trendy and common misperception that dairy causes inflammation problems in the gut microbiome,” Margolis says. But the registered dietitian reassures us that’s nothing more than a myth—at least the majority of the time.
“The truth is that, unless you have a true milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance, research suggests that dairy is unlikely to cause either [gut issues or inflammation]. In fact, research shows that consuming dairy and fermented dairy products—like kefir and yogurt—may help strengthen the gut microbiome and reduce inflammation, thanks to dairy’s nutrient-rich profile, along with the probiotics found in the fermented varieties,” Margolis says.
The good news is that gut-supporting dairy products are easy to find and come in a variety of different forms (hi, aged parmesan), making it even easier to meet the recommended daily intake for a healthy gut. “I would recommend at least three cups or servings a day for ages nine and older to meet calcium needs, and include a mix of cheese, milk, and fermented dairy products, such as kefir or yogurt, at least once a day to help maintain the gut microbiome,” Margolis says.
But to reap the most benefits, Margolis says that dairy must go hand in hand with fiber. Why? “It’s also important that dairy—and fermented dairy—is consumed along with a healthy diet that is rich in fiber. This will help feed the gut microbiome with prebiotics to fuel the probiotics in the fermented dairy products,” she says. A reminder: Prebiotics—mostly found in fiber-rich foods—feed the good bacteria already thriving in your gut.
Fermented dairy products can be even more beneficial for gut health
Though dairy products contain many essential nutrients, this registered dietitian recommends opting for fermented dairy products whenever possible. “While all dairy products are nutrient-rich and contain vitamins and minerals essential for the gut, fermented dairy products do have an extra edge because they contain live and active probiotic cultures that help maintain the health of the microbiome,” Margolis says.
Specifically, kefir is Margolis's number one option in terms of dairy products with maximum gut health benefits. (She uses it to make overnight oats for a perfect synbiotic breakfast.) “Kefir, in general, has more probiotics than any other fermented dairy product and also contains more peptides thanks to its long fermentation process. These peptides are being studied for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-hypertensive properties,” Margolis says. Her favorite brand is Lifeway Foods: Their kefir products come in a range of delicious flavors—from strawberry and cherry to cappucino and coconut—and each one is packed with protein, calcium, and 12 live and active probiotic cultures.
On the flip side, who shouldn’t consume dairy?
Of course, for those who have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, these foods won’t have a positive effect... in any regard. According to Margolis, those with milk protein allergies should definitely avoid dairy altogether, as it can lead to severe allergic reactions. “Signs range from mild to severe and can include anything from wheezing, vomiting, or digestive problems to hives and anaphylaxis,” she says.
Meanwhile, those with lactose intolerance may experience sensitivity to certain dairy products, but not always. She notes that lactose-free milk, and some fermented dairy products and types of cheeses in moderation are still safe (and well-tolerated) by those with lactose intolerance—though you should always consult a medical specialist when in doubt.
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