Most of us grew up drinking milk and eating cheese. After all, milk is high in calcium, vitamin B2, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin B12 – what’s not to love. But if you suffer persistent health problems like heartburn, lack of energy, high cholesterol, joint pain, lactose intolerance and even irritable bowel syndrome the dairy in your diet could be to blame. If these symptoms sound familiar, it’s worth going dairy-free for a month to see if your symptoms subside.
First, let’s distinguish between an allergy and intolerance. An allergy to cow’s milk allergy causes an immune response to one or more of the proteins in cow’s milk (albumin, casein or whey). If you’re allergic to cow’s milk, when you consume it your immune system identifies the protein as dangerous and activates your body’s defences. If you are allergic to dairy, you are likely to experience an immediate, rapid reaction, often triggered by a very small amount. The most common symptoms include bloating, vomiting or diarrhoea or constipation, eczema flare ups, asthma or other inflammatory response such as headaches or joint pain.
An intolerance to dairy is less severe but may also trigger digestive, skin and inflammatory symptoms. Dairy intolerance may have various causes, the most common is an inability to digest lactose. All animal milks including cow’s goat’s and sheep’s contain a sugar called lactose. When working correctly our gut produces an enzyme called lactase which breaks down the lactose in the milk so it’s absorbed. If you have problems digesting dairy products you may not produce enough lactase to digest the sugar. Without lactase, the sugar ferments in the gut and causes unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
Here’s what to do if you suspect you may be allergic or intolerant to dairy:
- Try a 28-day dairy-free challenge to see if it’s an issue.
Week 1: Cut out milk. Replace milk with a non-dairy alternative. Try almond, hemp, soy or rice milks which are virtually free of saturated fat and cholesterol. To make sure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D, eat a daily serving of green vegetables like broccoli and kale. Also, spend 10 minutes in the sun every day. If you’ve got a sensitivity to milk or are lactose intolerant, you may experience less bloating and fewer stomach aches by following this step of the challenge.
Week 2: Cut out yogurt. Replace yogurt with non-dairy yogurts made from rice, soy, coconut or other non-dairy milks. Look for options containing probiotics. After 2 weeks on this plan, you may notice clearer, brighter skin and improved energy. Keep a diary and note your observations.
Week 3: Cut out ice cream. You can find non-dairy frozen desserts that offer the texture and taste of your favourite ice cream in a variety of flavours. After 3 weeks on the plan, your mood should improve and you may experience less brain fog during the day.
Week 4: Cut out cheese. This may be the most difficult part of the plan. Non-dairy cheese is harder to find than non-dairy milk, but it’s available in natural or health food markets. It takes around 10 ounces of dairy to make one ounce of cheese so it’s a powerful source of inflammation for those who are lactose intolerant. Cutting it out will make a significant difference in how you feel. After around 4 weeks on the plan, you may notice fewer aches and pains and even sleep better.
- Start reading labels and ingredients lists
You’ll find it becomes harder to buy ready-made foods as dairy is commonly used in food manufacture.
- Foods to avoid
Butter, buttermilk, yogurt, hydrolysed casein / whey, casein and caseinates, cheese including cream, curd and cottage, cream, fromage frais, lactose, ghee, milk of all kinds, lactic acid (e270), skimmed milk powder, ice cream, whey protein / sugar.
- Learn to identify hidden sources of dairy
The following foods often contain milk derivatives so should be avoided; animal fat, artificial cream, low-fat spreads, margarine, batter for pancakes, waffles, fish fingers, biscuits, breads, cakes, cheese straws / biscuits, cheese flavoured crisps, crème caramel, crème patisserie / custard, custard tarts, chocolate and chocolate products, rice pudding and most other baked puddings, ready meals and sauces, scones, vegetable fats, sweeteners. Often high protein or protein enriched versions of an ingredient, particularly high energy foods contain milk protein. Caramel colouring, recaldent found in some Trident brand chewing gums and fruit flavoured Tums contain undisclosed dairy, the original, white Tums are fine.
- Cut out and keep the list of products containing dairy and milk derivatives: Keep it in your shopping bag and always read the label.
- Labelling:Dairy Free food labels only applies to cow’s milk, not to other animal milks.
- Some people with dairy allergy and intolerance can tolerate other animal milks: Including sheep, goats and/or buffalo milk.
- Live yoghurts can sometimes be tolerated by people with lactose intolerance: The bacterial cultures used in the production of yoghurt produce the lactase enzyme required for digestion.
- Dairy foods are not the only sources of calcium: Calcium is an important mineral involved in the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. It also plays a regulatory role in muscle contraction and blood clotting functions. Aim for 800 – 1000mg of calcium per day. Pregnant and post menopausal women may need more. If you cut dairy out of your diet, make sure you add calcium rich foods such as fish, green leafy vegetables such as watercress, collard greens, kale and broccoli; fruit, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, pulses and whole grains
- Alongside calcium, vitamin D plays a central role in the growth and repair of bones: The two are synergistic; we need vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vitamin D helps the body transport calcium to the bones making them strong. Sunlight helps the body naturally synthesise vitamin D so aim for at least 30 minutes of exposure to sunlight a day. When sunlight is scarce, increase consumption of oily fish, eggs, liver and fortified cereals, all sources of dietary vitamin D.
- Supplement: Individuals suffering from lactose intolerance might find it beneficial to supplement lactase enzymes to help digest dairy products.
Top dairy & lactose free foods
- Free From: Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose and Ocado do their own ‘Free From’ ranges which include milk substitutes, cheese style and vegetable spreads and yoghurt type desserts. The ranges are free from dairy, gluten and wheat, and all products are suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets. Milk alternatives, include soya, coconut, almond, hazelnut and rice. Cheese alternatives include mild or medium hard cheese and soft cheese, plus fruit yogurts, jellies and dessert shakes.
- Goodness Foods Direct: An online health food store which offers a vast range of dairy free products including the following labels: Alpro, Bute Island, EcoMil, Redwood, Tofutti, Biona, Pure, Suma, Provamel and Sojade co.uk
- Alpro: Produce a range of soya milks, including unsweetened and organic versions. These are readily available from most supermarkets. The brand also offers nut milks; almond and hazelnut, soya yoghurts in a number of flavours and desserts including dairy free custard and a UHT alternative to cream.
- Provamel Organic almond, oat & soya milks: Available from Holland and Barrett.
- Rice Dream: Contains added calcium and is available from Sainsbury’s.
- Kara Dairy Free coconut milk: Available from Holland and Barrett.
- EcoMil almond milk: Available from Holland and Barrett.
- Organic H Healthy oat milk & chocolate milk: Available from Holland and Barrett.
- Warburton’s: Dairy, gluten and wheat free breads. Available from Waitrose.
- Swedish Glace non-dairy vanilla: An ice cream style frozen dessert, Sainsbury’s.
- Bessant & Drury: Coconut milk ice cream, creamy, cholesterol free, rich in phosphorus and magnesium and is a good source of fibre. 4 flavours: Vanilla Strawberry, Chocolate, Lemon. Available from Waitrose.
- Tiger Tiger original mayonnaise and garlic mayonnaise: Available from Sainsbury’s.
- Green and Blacks Organic Dark Chocolate: Their dark chocolate range is dairy free. The bars are available at all major supermarkets.
- Fabulous Fudge Factory Dairy Free Fudge: Available from Sainsbury’s.
- Nakd ginger bread: Gluten, wheat, dairy free Available from Waitrose, Ocado and Sainsbury’s.
Shani Shaker BA (hons), dipION, mBANT, CNHC, is a registered nutritional therapist with a focus on regenerative and functional nutrition, disordered eating, addiction and mental health. Based in London her services include one-to-one coaching, group classes and Skype sessions. Contact her at [email protected]
If you suspect you are intolerant or allergic to dairy products, you should go to your GP for diagnosis. The information provided is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition. Supplementation should only be temporary. If you’re eating a nutrient-rich diet, extra supplementation should only last for a month or two, just long enough to resolve the deficiency.