For years we’ve regarded full-fat milk, cheese and butter with suspicion, worried their saturated fat content would harm our health. But now, evidence is mounting that full-fat dairy might not be as unhealthy as we once thought. However, it’s not just the fat levels that persuade some people to avoid dairy, lactose intolerance, skin problems and the belief that drinking animals' milk is unnatural are all common reasons for avoiding it.


Next, find out if you have a food intolerance, if soy milk is good for you and read up on food intolerance tests and whether they're worth it.

What is dairy?

This refers to all products made from milk including cheese and yogurt, these foods are useful sources of protein and nutrients like calcium.

Can I be intolerant or allergic to dairy?

Some people need to avoid dairy because they have a cow’s milk allergy or they are unable to fully digest the sugar found in animal milk, called lactose. An allergy to cow’s milk is one of the most common food allergies in childhood – it’s estimated to affect around seven per cent of babies under one year, although most children grow out of it.

Lactose intolerance occurs because the digestive system lacks an enzyme called lactase that breaks down lactose. When lactose is incompletely digested unpleasant symptoms like diarrhoea, wind and bloating may be experienced. The degree of lactose intolerance does vary, which means some people are able to have small amounts of dairy without experiencing symptoms whilst others need to avoid it completely.

More like this

A food intolerance is different to a food allergy, read more about this at NHS website

Read more about dairy intolerance and allergy.

Can dairy foods aggravate asthma?

A commonly held belief is that cow’s milk products cause an increase in mucus production and issues with respiratory symptoms and asthma. However, there is currently no evidence to support this and studies do not support the elimination of dairy foods for this purpose.

Can dairy foods trigger skin acne?

Dairy may play a role in skin acne, with low-fat dairy potentially being more problematic than full-fat. However, which dairy foods are problematic and whether all or only some acne sufferers may be affected is still not known.

Is dairy good for our bones?

Although dairy foods are a good source of calcium and are widely thought to be beneficial to our bone health, some cohort studies that look at participants over a long period suggest milk and dairy products may not be associated with a reduced incidence of brittle bones.

Are there benefits to eating dairy?

In 2020, researchers found that children who ate full-fat dairy foods were healthier than those who ate reduced-fat versions. These observations were also seen in adults. Fermented dairy products, such as kefir, live yogurt and aged cheese, may also contribute to a more diverse gut microbiome which, in turn, may boost overall health.

For many people, dairy foods form part of a balanced, varied diet. According to dietitian Duane Mellor, certain fatty acids in dairy fats may even help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes and have a neutral or even anti-inflammatory effect on the body.

However, there’s no doubt that dairy foods, including butter and cheese contribute saturated fat, which may raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Here, registered dietitian Aisling Pigott looks at the pros and cons of eating dairy – and how full-fat versions may impact your health.

Milk being poured into a glass

Health benefits of milk

First, let’s talk about semi-skimmed milk. Over the past 20 or 30 years, the idea has been that the UK – a nation of tea and coffee drinkers – might lower its saturated fat intake by swapping to low-fat milk. Historically there has thought to be a link between saturated fat and cholesterol, which may increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, but whole milk isn’t even a medium-fat product.

In the UK, milk comes in three fat levels:

  • Whole or full fat (3.5 per cent fat)
  • Semi-skimmed (1.8 per cent fat)
  • Skimmed (up to 0.3 per cent fat)

A food is considered high fat when it contains 17.5 per cent fat or more; low-fat has three per cent and fat-free means there’s less than 0.5g per 100g for a solid food or 100ml for a liquid. But even rich Jersey milk only contains five per cent fat. So, really, we don’t need to worry about the fat content in our regular milk.

Dairy fat also has benefits: it contains vitamins such as the fat-soluble vitamins A and E. Interestingly, skimmed milk has a marginally higher calcium content. So, while milk and dairy do contribute to our saturated fat intake, our most harmful source is from heavily processed foods which have been steadily increasing in our diets, such as pastries, pies and ready meals.

Find out which milk is the healthiest?

Blocks of butter on a table

Health benefits of butter

Butter fell out of fashion after vegetable oil spreads were released into supermarkets – claiming to be healthier and lower in fat. However, the way such spreads are manufactured, often by hydrogenating vegetable oils and adding emulsifiers, stabilisers and colourings, makes them an ultra-processed food (UPF). Diets high in these UPFs have been linked with an increase in heart disease, weight gain and cancer.

There is no reason why butter can’t be enjoyed within a balanced diet and in fact, being a source of a unique type of saturated fat, called C15, so named because it is a fifteen-carbon saturated fat, a moderate amount may actually help protect against metabolic disease and support immune and liver health.

That being said, as butter is a high-density source of energy, it’s best to use it sparingly. Consider portion sizes and think about how butter fits into your overall diet, how much are you having and how often?

What about spreads containing the cholesterol-lowering plant compounds stanols and sterols? You’d have to eat up to eight teaspoons a day to experience any benefits. A healthy, varied diet should manage cholesterol and, ideally, we’d be getting our unsaturated fats through nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Blocks of different types of cheeses

Health benefits of cheese

We know that cheese is a higher fat product, but it’s got lots of calcium, it’s a really good source of protein, iodine, vitamin A, a good source of energy and has loads of health benefits. Plus, adding cheese to a dish can enhance it, making it nutrient-rich and more appetising. Some studies also suggest that certain types of cheese do not appear to adversely impact blood triglyceride (fat) levels.

However, because many cheeses’ have a high fat content, reduced-fat versions won’t necessarily be low in fat. There are other considerations too. The lower fat versions are often milder in taste and the mouth-feel can be affected when we lower the fat content. But some naturally low-fat varieties like cottage cheese and quark are becoming popular ways to boost protein intake.

Read more about the healthiest cheeses.

A bowl of yoghurt

Health benefits of yogurt

Most food experts agree yogurt is a great addition to our daily diets. You can get an amazing selection to suit every need and taste. There’s yogurt with live bacteria, which can promote gut health, and there are different options for fat content – Greek-style yogurt can come with zero percent to 10 per cent fat. Yogurt can also be incorporated into other foods so it’s a good way of adding protein into your meals throughout the day, she says.

Read more about the health benefits of Greek yogurt.

Overall, is dairy good for you?

Studies suggest that it may well be the type of dairy – fermented versus unfermented – that is relevant to how our body responds to these foods. With this in mind, as long as you do not have an allergy or intolerance, are not following a vegan diet or prone to skin conditions such as acne, then you may benefit from including a variety of fermented dairy foods, such as cheese, yogurt and kefir in your diet.

Read more about dairy foods...

Which milk is healthiest?
The best 22 milk alternatives to try
What is a dairy-free diet?
Lactose intolerance in children
What is a detox diet?

Do you enjoy dairy as part of a balanced, healthy diet? What’s your view on dairy products? Leave a comment below...

This page was reviewed on 18 March 2024 by Kerry Torrens

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including Good Food.


All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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