Is Eating A Lot of Dairy on Keto Unhealthy? Part 1

Have you found that since starting the ketogenic diet, you have drifted to a state of consuming a lot of dairy products?  Dairy is a common theme to many meals of keto dieters, and a common ingredient to many keto recipes.

In fact, cheese is almost a perfect keto snack with 70% calories from fat and 30% calories from protein.  In addition, dairy products are high in calcium, a mineral keto dieters lack.

A few ways dairy creeps into a keto diet are butter and heavy cream in keto coffee every morning; shredded cheese on scrambled eggs for breakfast; mozzarella cheese sticks for a snack; and sour cream as a side to a burger for dinner.

So what's wrong with dairy on Keto?

Outside of the ketogenic diet, people stay away from dairy for a few reasons:

  1. Dairy is considered to be high calorie and high fat- not desirable for those on a traditional high carb diet
  2. Dairy has been associated with inflammation in the body
  3. Dairy has a lot of added hormones and antibiotics making it unhealthy

The Truth About Dairy

The first concern takes care of itself since keto is a high fat diet - so cheese fits right in.  But the second and third concerns deserve some investigating.

When you are eating high amounts of dairy on the ketogenic diet, you should place more of a value on the quality of the dairy.  If dairy makes up half of your diet, it should ideally be high in nutritional content and void of hormones and antibiotics.

However, a common complaint amongst keto dieters is that when they go to their regular grocery stores, it is very difficult to find this information on dairy product labels, specifically cheese.  In fact, even Whole Foods makes it difficult.

So instead of continuing to purchase whatever the cheapest cheese is at the store, or on the other end of the spectrum, get ripped off by the organic cheeses when you really don't understand the difference, we've done the research and are giving it to you in this two-part post!

Here are a couple of the topics we'll discuss in the first post on dairy and the ketogenic diet:

  • Is dairy inflammatory?
  • The benefits of grass-fed dairy vs organic dairy vs inorganic dairy
  • Hormones and antibiotics in dairy: regulations and nutrition labels

In the second part to this post, we'll be giving you the information you really need for keto diet shopping at the grocery store:

  • What brands of dairy are best?
  • What brands promise they do not use hormones and antibiotics in their dairy, even if it is not on the nutrition label
  • Why is organic dairy so expensive?!?!

Is Dairy Healthy?  Are Dairy Foods Inflammatory?

Claims that dairy is unhealthy and inflammatory are misleading.  There have been mixed results among scientific studies - some showing that dairy is inflammatory and others show it is anti-inflammatory.  It was actually found that in more of the studies, dairy products may have benefits of being anti-inflammatory in healthy individuals, and those with metabolic syndrome (aka obesity). [i] 

However, dairy is inflammatory to people that have specific lactose or dairy allergies, or gastro-intestinal diseases. 

Some of the dairy research studied several types of dairy food including milk, cheese and/or yogurt.  The studies were not specifically for people on the ketogenic diet.  This would be very interesting in part due to the reduced sugar in-take on the ketogenic diet and the links to sugar causing inflammation.

Although specific conclusions cannot be made from these studies because of the wide range of variables among test subjects, in my opinion it is at least safe to say high dairy consumption will not have huge inflammatory effects in your body while on the ketogenic diet.

However, what may be most important to the causes of inflammation from dairy is the type of dairy you are consuming.  Large amounts of nutrients and fats in dairy products are dependent on the quality of the dairy- ie, whether it is grass-fed, organic or inorganic.  This leads us right into the next section...

Understanding the "Organic" and "Grass-fed" Dairy Labels

So the food industry has led us to believe that all things organic are best.  I have come to tell you simply cannot rely on organic dairy as the indicator of the healthiest dairy.

From the US National Organic Program (NOP), organic dairy cows are only required to graze pasture 120 days per year, and of those days receive only 30% of their dry food matter from forage or pasture.[ii]  That's really not as organic as you would have thought, huh?

With that being said, the US NOP does like to point out that most organic dairy farms do exceed this minimum requirement, and should strive to feed the cows on pasture as much as possible.  They would like us to believe that a lot of organic farms actually are doing much more than the minimum requirement for their dairy to be labeled organic - and some farms probably do, but it won't differentiate which farms do on the food label at the store.

At the same time, simply purchasing products labeled grass-fed dairy is not a solution either.  There is no federal grass-fed standard, so a company can technically label dairy grass-fed if it was fed grass at any point in its life, even if only for a day.

So because a grass-fed label really doesn't mean a lot, some companies are starting their own grass-fed certifications with specific requirements.

When shopping for dairy, you can look for those grass-fed certifications, or you can choose dairy made from outside the US - dairy outside the US, like Kerry Gold from Ireland, is primarily grass-fed for most of the year.

The Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Dairy vs Organic Dairy vs Inorganic Dairy

So while it seems that grass-fed dairy is better than organic, finding grass-fed dairy can be complicated.  But organic dairy is definitely around and there is good news.  One research study found that the omega-3:omega-6 ratio in organic dairy is greatly improved compared to inorganic dairy: organic dairy has 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk! [iii]

The cool part about this, is that if organic dairy is only pasture raised for the minimum of 30% of 120 days per year, think of what would happen to the omega-3 ratio of completely grass-fed dairy!

The ideal omega-6:omega-3 ratio for people has been found to be around 2:1.  A lot of foods do not get close to this ratio.  However, that same research study mentioned above found that in organic milk, the omega-6:omega-3 ratio is about 2:1, which is pretty awesome.[iv]

If you are a numbers person, here is the actual differences of omega-6:omega-3 ratios found in organic versus in-organic dairy samples from that same research study:

Organic Milk: 2.276:1

Inorganic Milk: 5.774:1

If you're eating a lot of dairy, this is pretty significant.

Hormones and Antibiotics in Dairy:  Dairy Regulation

Growth Hormones and Steroids in Dairy

The main concern with dairy is treatment of cows with rBST and the increase of growth hormones that rBST causes in cows.

rBST is a bovine (cow) growth hormone that has been legally approved by the FDA and is legally used in cows.  rBST is actually biologically inactive in humans, so it itself does not cause health problems in people.  The real issue is that rBST causes increases of other growth hormones that can cause problems in humans, specifically the hormone IGF-1.  IGF-1 has been linked to growth in cells, and more concerning is the possible link to the growth of tumor cells.

The American Cancer society has written a great article about rBST and its relationship to cancer.  If you want more detailed information I recommend reading it.  However, to summarize, the research is inconclusive as to whether rBST and IGF-1 cause the growth of cancer cells.  Either way, something that could potentially increase your odds of cancer is not a good option, especially if you are eating large amounts of it on the keto diet.

The good news is that a lot of in-organic dairy is no longer treated with rBST and it is clearly labeled on the package.  The use of rBST is regulated for organic dairy, so you are safe to consume organic dairy without needing a specific "not treated with rBST" label.

If other steroids were a concern, the FDA website states that "No steroid hormone implants are approved for growth purposes in dairy cows, veal calves, pigs, or poultry."

Antibiotics in Dairy

When talking antibiotics in dairy, The U.S. Grade A Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) requires that "all bulk milk tankers be sampled and analyzed for animal drug residues before the milk is processed. Any bulk milk tanker found positive is rejected for human consumption."

With antibiotics, the real issue is the consumption of dairy that used antibiotics, which pass through  antibiotic-resistant bacteria to humans.  Again, the direct effects of dairy treated with antibiotics on humans is inconclusive.

So in theory, actually consuming dairy from cows treated with antibiotics is a non-issue.

However, you are safest either way choosing organic products because organic dairy is not allowed to be treated with antibiotics.


A lot of research actually suggests the dairy can be anti-inflammatory as opposed to some studies that suggest it is inflammatory.  The inflammatory issues could be caused by sugar consumed, not the dairy.

If you are eating a keto diet with a lot of dairy, grass-fed dairy is going to be the best option.  But options for all dairy products will be limited because grass-fed dairy is not yet a huge industry.

Organic is still a much healthier option than in-organic because of the higher ratio of omega-3:omega-6 fats.  Higher omega-3 foods will be super important on a high fat diet like keto, when you are consuming a larger portion of your caloric in-take from fats.

rBST and antibiotics use in dairy is inconclusive as to whether it causes harm in humans.  However, organic dairy is certified to not use rBST or antibiotics so it is the safest option, while there will still be inorganic dairy that doesn't use rBST either.



[i] "Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence"  Alessandra Bordoni, Francesca Danesi, Dominique Dardevet, Didier Dupont, Aida S. Fernandez, Doreen Gille, Claudia Nunes dos Santos, Paula Pinto, Roberta Re, Didier Rémond, Danit R. Shahar & Guy Vergères

[ii] "Pasture for Organic Ruminant Livestock: Understanding and Implementing the National Organic Program (NOP) Pasture Rule"  Lee Rinehart and Ann Baier National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) Agriculture Specialists

[iii] "Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study" Charles M. Benbrook , Gillian Butler, Maged A. Latif, Carlo Leifert, Donald R. Davis

[iv] "Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study" Charles M. Benbrook , Gillian Butler, Maged A. Latif, Carlo Leifert, Donald R. Davis

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