Milk and milk products are often controversial because they’re thought to increase inflammation due to their saturated fat. Inflammation is your body’s built-in defense mechanism, and despite its bad reputation, it’s a sign your body’s immune system is working hard to heal from injury, trauma or damage. Depending on its cause and your body’s ability to overcome the offense, inflammation can last days or weeks (acute) or months to years (chronic). Chronic inflammation can develop into life-threatening diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Approximately 3 in 5 people across the globe succumb to conditions such as these, per StatPearls. Research has shown that diet and lifestyle changes can help stymie inflammation and curb the chance of disease. Who doesn’t want to live a life of less disease and better health? Your eating habits are one of your greatest tools to squelch inflammation.
Pictured Recipe: Berry-Kefir Smoothie
The Mediterranean diet comes highly rated by health and medical experts because it’s chock-full of bioactive compounds that may have anti-inflammatory effects, including polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Key features of the Mediterranean diet are whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables and dairy. Dairy foods have long been a cornerstone of the human diet, supporting good nutrition throughout the life span for bone growth and development, according to a 2019 study in Nutrients. Some research, such as a 2020 article published in Foods, suggests dairy fats may have a neutral or positive effect on health, specifically cardiovascular health.
That said, dairy can provide nutrients to better meet vital nutritional needs. Dairy foods boast noteworthy nutrients that could fend off inflammation—vitamin D, calcium, antioxidants and probiotics, to name a few, per a 2022 article in Animals. Bear in mind, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlight a few of these as nutrients Americans eat too sparingly.
These five fermented dairy foods are good for the gut and may have anti-inflammatory potential to help your body withstand inflammation’s harmful effects or reduce it altogether.
It’s tangy, versatile, and nutrient-packed—yogurt is a gut-friendly food made by fermenting milk with bacterial cultures such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles, per a 2020 study in Nutrients. Grocery aisles carry a wide selection of yogurt varieties for your choosing, from Greek to Icelandic. Nutritionally, yogurt is packed with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, phosphorus and magnesium, depending on the type. Research tells us probiotics strongly improve the antioxidant status of dairy products, so probiotic yogurt may aid in enhancing your body’s anti-inflammatory power, per a 2018 article in Nutrition Reviews. To promote better digestive health, yogurt with probiotics can dish out “good” bacteria to the gut.
A 2021 study published in Nutrients of 1,753 participants found that eating yogurt (average intake was 0.28 cup-equivalents per day) was associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker of inflammation. Also, a 2020 review of nine studies published in Obesity Medicine reported daily intakes of probiotic yogurt were linked with lower C-reactive protein (CRP), another inflammatory marker. However, these studies had no additional effects on any other inflammatory markers.
2. Cultured Buttermilk
Cultured buttermilk comes from fermenting nonfat or low-fat milk with bacteria cultures, resulting in a probiotic beverage that’s low in lactose, per Britannica. Probiotics give your digestive tract a healthy boost that may support immune health. Your gut is home to trillions of living organisms, collectively called the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is responsible for various critical functions, including supporting your immune system to protect you against harmful diseases. Thus, healthy gut function depends on the support of probiotic-rich foods.
A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences showed that buttermilk (and other dairy products) could promote the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs help maintain glucose homeostasis, which means stabilizing blood glucose and insulin levels for a healthy metabolism. Moreover, they help control inflammation and immunity and strengthen the intestinal barrier to keep harmful microbes from entering the blood, per the 2022 study above.
One 2019 study in Clinical Oral Investigations found that buttermilk and other fermented dairy products may lower inflammation in the cells in and around the mouth, potentially helping with oral health.
Plus, consumption of fermented-milk beverages (including buttermilk) was linked with lower cardiovascular risk in a 2020 review of 20 longitudinal studies published in Advances in Nutrition.
Kefir (pronounced kuh-feer) is an age-old fermented beverage that adds kefir grains (a mix of yeasts, bacteria and carbohydrates) to milk. Creamy and thick with a faint tartness, kefir contains many essential nutrients. Its fermentation produces many bioactive compounds, such as essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. An 8-ounce serving provides 16% of the Daily Value of vitamin D, a nutrient many Americans lack. A 2022 small study published in Frontiers in Endocrinology found that six months of supplementing with vitamin D in children with low vitamin D levels reduced CRP. One cup of kefir also provides almost 50% of your daily needs for vitamin A—an antioxidant—per the USDA. Low vitamin A levels may impair immune health, making it difficult to recover from illness, per the National Institutes of Health.
Further, kefir’s bioactive compounds, including lactic and acetic acids, can fight harmful disease pathogens in the intestinal lining, according to a 2021 review in Foods. Kefir contains probiotics and may help support immunity by helping to overcome infections and illness, per a 2021 article in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy.
According to the 2021 review, some animal and human cell studies suggest other potential health benefits of kefir, including anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and anti-hypertensive capabilities. Since much of the research on kefir has been done in human cells and animals, clinical trials are needed.
4. Cultured Cottage Cheese
Curdling milk with acid and adding probiotics results in cultured cottage cheese. It’s favored in the fitness community for its high protein content and tastiness in combination with sweet tropical fruits. So how does it help thwart inflammation? Like many other dairy items on this list, the lumpy and creamy food delivers probiotics to the gut, promoting healthy bacterial growth and survival, per a 2020 study in Nutrition Research.
A 2021 study of 35,352 postmenopausal women published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reported a connection between higher intakes of dairy foods (including cottage cheese) and lower levels of CRP and IL-6. The same study revealed that eating yogurt was linked to a drop in type 2 diabetes risk. These associations were not seen with milk or butter.
Cottage cheese can carry high amounts of sodium, which the America Heart Association recommends limiting to help prevent high blood pressure. Seeking a low- to no-salt version could be beneficial.
5. Aged Cheese
Aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Parmesan and Gouda result from using acid to curdle milk, cream or buttermilk. It ferments with the addition of lactic acid bacteria, has its whey moved, and is left to ripen (or age) over time, according to a 2021 review in Frontiers in Microbiology. Beneficial to digestive health, aged cheeses are typically sources of probiotics as long as they haven’t been heated during processing. Swiss, provolone, Cheddar and Gouda are some examples.
According to 2019 research in the Journal of Dairy Science, cheese may offer a stable environment for probiotics to live in, thanks to its high fat content, pH and high water activity. Support your gut with probiotic-containing cheeses, but consider moderating your intake since cheese can be high in calories and sodium.
The Bottom Line
While some research shows dairy foods may positively affect inflammation, there isn’t enough evidence to prove they’re surefire inflammation reducers. Dairy can promote inflammation in people allergic to cow’s-milk protein, those with lactose intolerance or those with digestive troubles after consuming dairy or dairy products.
Eating a well-balanced diet incorporating anti-inflammatory foods and staying mindful of foods that worsen inflammation can equip your body to tread away from chronic inflammation and disease.