Chris Cifelli
Chris Cifelli, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Nutrition Research at the National Dairy Council.

Gut health is a term people often use to describe keeping their digestion in good working order and free from issues like gluten and lactose intolerance, constipation, or an upset stomach. Unfortunately, sometimes people leap from experiencing these digestive issues to eliminating dairy foods.

This requires a little bit of myth-busting as dairy actually can play a vital role in maintaining gut integrity and promoting a healthy microbiome, which is the collective bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes that live naturally on our bodies and inside of us.

Maintaining a healthy intestinal tract is important because it contains the body’s largest number of immune cells, and the gut is essential for nutrient absorption from the foods we consume.

Habits such as staying at an appropriate weight and following a balanced eating pattern that includes fiber and nutrients from whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables are pathways to a healthy gut. But, people can also benefit from eating fermented foods and probiotic-containing foods (or supplements), which interact with the gut microbiota and intestinal cells.

Fermented foods are trendy, but the truth is that they’ve been a part of the human diet for more than 10,000 years. During fermentation, “starter cultures” of bacteria, yeast, and/or molds convert nutrients such as carbs into an alcohol or acid. These live and active cultures can improve food safety and lengthen shelf life. Microbial growth also can enhance taste, texture, and digestibility and may help improve nutritional quality. 

This is how fermented dairy options such as cheese, yogurt, and kefir can help promote digestive health and there is increasingly more scientific proof to support their benefits. A systematic review published in Nutrition Reviews evaluated the impact of fermented dairy food consumption, specifically yogurt, kefir, and other fermented milk, on gastrointestinal health and other outcomes. A direct and causal relationship was found between yogurt consumption and lactose digestion and tolerance. This review affirmed the beneficial role of yogurt consumption on improved lactose digestion and tolerance.

Certainly, some people lack the enzyme lactase — or machinery — to digest lactose that is naturally found in dairy. They can experience gastrointestinal symptoms, but the good news is that there are dairy solutions. There are lactose-free dairy milk and the majority of cheeses have very little lactose compared to a cup of milk. Plus, all yogurts come with the added benefit of the good bacteria that help digest lactose, making it easier for people to tolerate.
 Whether a person is seeking lactose-free options or wants to improve their gut health, the U.S. dairy industry continues to innovate and produce products that can fit most dietary and health needs. Therefore, eliminating dairy and its critical nutrients from the diet doesn’t have to be the only option.