Is dairy a good choice for your heart?

This undated photo provided by America's Test Kitchen in October 2018 shows hummus in Brookline, Mass. This recipe appears in the cookbook "Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs." (Daniel J. van Ackere/America's Test Kitchen via AP)

A glass of milk: a drink once so innocent, it was associated only with chocolate chip cookies and Santa Claus. But today, that same glass may just as likely be met with gasps from people fearing disease and indigestion.

Why such a shift?

To start, humans are the only species on the planet to seek out and drink another animal’s milk. This behavior — along with the fact that lactose intolerance affects around 65 percent of the population, according to the National Institutes of Health — leaves experts questioning dairy’s role in our diets.

When it comes to improving cardiovascular health, dairy often seems like a good choice to cut because it’s the leading source of saturated fat in the U.S. diet and a source of cholesterol and sodium. However, some experts note the convenience of dairy’s vitamins and minerals, and recommend sticking with fat-free and low-fat dairy options.

[See: The 13 Best Diets for Your Heart.]

Another factor contributing to conflicting information is the fact that dairy research has been hampered by direct and indirect industry bias — think the “Got Milk?” ads from the 90s. As such, even clinical results haven’t been straightforward, and many published studies have been underwritten by the dairy industry.

There are a few studies in the medical literature that are without such bias, but even these are confusing in that they compare different dairy products or preparations to control groups that often are not the logical non-dairy groups. As a result, there is no clear consensus among experts about dairy intake, but most would agree there is a very serious concern with the amount of saturated fat and salt in a variety of dairy products.

[See: 8 Dairy-Free Desserts.]

In my view as a cardiologist, it’s generally best to limit or avoid dairy intake, especially if you have concerns about heart health. There are also some concerns regarding dairy’s influence on some cancers and even worsened bone density. Here’s how you can make heart-healthy dairy — and other lifestyle — choices:

1. Pay attention to dairy add-ons.

If you go out for dinner, be conscious that dairy products like cheese may have been added to a dish. Dairy may appear in appetizers — everything from breads stuffed with cheese to charcuterie — and main dishes like salads, which may contain cream-based dressings or cheese add-ons. You can make easy switches by choosing appetizers without extra dairy and asking for different dressings. By weighing your options more carefully, you can avoid consuming highly saturated products that can be harmful to heart health.

2. Make a diet switch.

In addition to avoiding or limiting dairy, a whole-food, low-fat, plant-based diet can improve cardiovascular health. Medical professionals have long touted the benefits of consuming more fruits and vegetables, but finding additional ways to incorporate these items into your diet — especially in place of dairy — can have lasting effects. Instead of string cheese or yogurt, I tell the patients I treat at National Jewish Health to try heart-healthy snacks like hummus and carrot sticks, which provide protein and fiber.

[See: 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet.]

3. Get outside — together.

The most synergistic way to maintain cardiovascular health is to combine these healthy eating habits with physical activity, stress relief and support from others. Having a running buddy or someone who can support your diet decisions can improve the chances that lifestyle shifts, like limiting dairy intake, stick. Consider checking out local programs in your area like Walk With a Doc.

More from U.S. News

10 Heart Health Breakthroughs

The Facts on Heart Disease

6 Drugs That Can Worsen or Increase Risk for Heart Failure

Is Dairy Heart-Healthy? originally appeared on usnews.com