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Is dairy harder to digest as you get older? Nutritionists address the biggest misconceptions about milk.

Alternative milks, such as oat and almond, have surged in popularity, while cow’s milk sales in the U.S. have been on the decline for years. While there are several reasons behind dairy’s drop in popularity and why many people are seeking alternatives, including lactose intolerance, some are questioning the benefits of cow’s milk and dairy in general. However, Michelle Routhenstein, preventive cardiology dietitian at Entirely Nourished, says that dairy does have several health benefits. “Pros for consuming dairy, particularly milk, include its nutrient-rich profile providing calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium and other essential nutrients,” she tells Yahoo Life. Dairy has also been linked to a multitude of health benefits, including a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

That said, you don’t need to consume it. “A well-planned, balanced diet that includes these nutrients in sufficient quantities can provide all the essential nutrients necessary for good health, without the need for dairy milk,” says Routhenstein. Lisa Andrews, dietitian and owner of Sound Bites Nutrition, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “You don’t have to drink milk, and you shouldn’t if it causes gastrointestinal distress, allergic symptoms or you hate to drink it.”

Whether or not people actually need dairy — and milk in particular — there are still many myths and misperceptions that surround it. Yahoo Life asked dietitians to weigh in on the five most common misunderstandings about dairy that they encounter. Here’s what they have to say.

Is dairy harder to digest as you get older?

You’re not imagining things if that digestive discomfort after drinking milk seems to be getting worse as you age. This is likely due to lactose intolerance, a condition making it hard to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.

Most newborns are able to produce lactase, an enzyme crucial for the digestion of lactose in the small intestine. However, after the infant weaning phase, most people start to have lower levels of lactase. In fact, about 36% of Americans and 68% of people in the world have lactose intolerance. The rest might have a special gene and are able to continue digesting milk into adulthood.

The good news: “You don’t have to completely eliminate dairy foods when you have lactose intolerance,” Amanda Sauceda, dietitian and founder of ​​the Mindful Gut, tells Yahoo Life. “Despite reduced lactase levels, many people can still tolerate some lactose in their diets, often in the form of yogurt and firm cheese, which have lower lactose due to processing. There’s also a variety of dairy foods low in lactose or lactose free, and lactase supplements that can aid in digestion of lactose-rich foods.”

Does dairy cause inflammation?

Routhenstein says this is a misconception that “stems from the fact that some individuals experience gastrointestinal discomfort or allergic reactions to dairy, leading to inflammation in certain cases.” While there’s some concern that the saturated fat found in full fat dairy, for example, can cause inflammation, it may be that it worsens inflammation that already exists instead.

Dairy in general contains many ingredients known to have anti-inflammatory properties, such as whey protein, antioxidants, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids. A systematic review in 2020 of 27 randomized controlled studies backs this up and suggests that dairy products have a neutral to beneficial effect on inflammation. In particular, fermented dairy, like yogurt and kefir, are thought to create an anti-inflammatory environment and support gut health.

Is dairy good for bone health?

Dairy has long been thought to be necessary for bone health due to its high amounts of calcium — a key mineral in bones. “Research indicates that children and older adults who avoid or don’t consume dairy products are at higher risk for bone fracture,” says Andrews.

Many studies observed dairy positively affecting bone growth in children and adolescents, and bone turnover in adults. In addition to calcium, dairy’s high levels of protein and phosphates encourage bone growth. Specifically, fermented dairy products, like yogurt and kefir, which also provide probiotics, are associated with a lower risk of hip fracture. However, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis found mixed results linking dairy to a reduced risk of osteoporosis.

While dairy can support bone health, it’s not the determining factor. “Other factors such as genetics, physical activity and overall diet also play an important role in bone strength,” explains Routhenstein. And there are other good food sources for calcium besides dairy, including dark, leafy green vegetables like collard greens, spinach and kale, sardines and fortified orange juice.

Does milk help you sleep?

You may have heard that drinking a warm cup of milk before bed can help you sleep better. While it’s certainly cozy and soothing, research is mixed on whether this advice is accurate. Sauceda says that “dairy is a source of tryptophan, magnesium and zinc, which are all necessary for the production of melatonin,” a hormone that promotes sleep. Milk is also rich in calcium and vitamins A, D, and E, and research shows insufficient intake of these nutrients is associated with poor sleep.

How much milk you drink might matter. A U.K. study of 500,000 middle-aged adults found that an overall healthy diet with a moderate amount of milk was associated with good sleep, but too little or too much was associated with sleep problems and mental health issues. Generally, it’s recommended to have about 3 servings of dairy daily.

It’s important to note that many factors, like stress, physical activity, medical conditions and environment (including noise and room temperature), can also have an impact on your sleep. However, most studies suggest that, with a well-balanced diet, milk may contribute to improved sleep.

Is milk full of antibiotics?

It’s highly unlikely antibiotics will be found in your milk. The Food and Drug Administration’s pasteurized milk ordinance and each state follow strict regulations that do not allow milk with antibiotic residues to enter the food supply. A farmer might use antibiotics to treat a sick cow (this is also under constant scrutiny); however, the cow is then isolated, and their milk is discarded until all of the antibiotics are out of the cow’s system.

Milk is also tested when a tank arrives to pick up milk from a farm and when it arrives at a processing plant. If at any point a sample tests positive for antibiotics, the milk gets dumped, and action is taken against the farm.

Key takeaway

Experts agree that research about dairy is mixed in some cases, but overall, there’s potential for several different health benefits to consuming dairy products as part of a well-balanced diet.

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.

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