Are you Lactose Intolerant?
New dairy alternatives are available to help you.
Milk and dairy products are widely considered to be an important part of a healthy and balanced diet, and we are quite well educated around the high saturated fat content of full-fat milk and products such as cream, butter and cheese. Many of us moderate our consumption of dairy - skimmed milk is more widely consumed than it ever has been - and there are plenty of lower fat alternatives on offer for products such as cheese, yoghurt, butter and cream. However, as gluten intolerance has done for bread and wheat products, lactose intolerance is doing for milk and dairy products.
Lactose intolerance – it’s more common than we think
Lactose is the main carbohydrate (sugar) in milk, and we are born with the ability to digest it (via lactase) – and it is our main source of nutrition until weaning. What most of us don’t know is that approximately 70% of us at some point in adulthood stop producing sufficient lactase and therefore lose the ability to digest lactose (source: British Nutrition Foundation). Because of genetic mutations over the years, some nationalities have a greater intolerance to lactose than others - the population of northern Europe is the most tolerant, and that includes us here in the UK. However, it is estimated that up to 40% of British adults suffer from some sort of food allergies/intolerances (source: British Nutrition Foundation) and this is partly due to the fact that we consume milk (and milk products) in much greater quantities today than previous generations have done.
Is dairy the cause of your digestive problems?
So, if we are to consider whether milk is good or bad for us, the answer lies in how much we are consuming, and also whether we are suffering any prolonged and undiagnosed digestive problems or other types of unexplained allergic conditions. Lactose intolerance occurs when our bodies don’t produce enough lactase to break down the lactose for absorption. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include flatulence, diarrhoea, bloating, stomach cramps and nausea, and their severity increases with the quantities of foods consumed. These symptoms are also easily confused with those of other conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), so it is important to seek medical advice before excluding dairy from your diet. While most cases of lactose intolerance are hereditary, before making any diet decisions it should be noted that some cases can be due to a short-term infection within the intestine which will eventually clear up.
Dairy isn’t just responsible for digestive issues
Dairy intolerance is considered to be one of the most common causes of eczema, but expert opinion is divided as to whether a total dairy-elimination diet is beneficial to sufferers. By and large, an improvement should be evident after approximately six weeks of eliminating dairy from the diet. Otherwise, the benefits of dairy products outweigh the negative in such cases, particularly in children. There is also a link between lactose allergy and asthma in a small number of sufferers as a result of wheezing caused by the allergic reaction. A quick skin prick test arranged via a GP can determine whether dairy is a trigger for any such allergic reaction. Milk has also been linked to joint problems and arthritic pain, and it should also be considered that as an animal product, milk contains hormones and antibiotics that can be related to human diseases such as cancer.
Make an informed choice and seek professional advice
Ultimately milk and milk products provide necessary calcium and vitamins, so unless there is a good medical reason for reducing or eliminating milk from your diet, then any choice to embark on a dairy-free diet should be an informed one – and either way, it should be done in consultation with a registered nutritional therapist. Women, in particular, should be careful about the risk of osteoporosis by opting for a no-dairy diet. If you DO decide to do away with dairy, the alternatives market offers more choices and ranges than it ever has done. Soya, almond, coconut and other milk have never been more popular and offer add-on ranges such as yoghurt, cream, ice cream and butter – just be aware of the fat content and additives in some of these. Seek advice on foods to include as replacements for dairy items such as leafy green, cruciferous vegetables, soya, pulses, seeds and tofu which are all great alternative sources of calcium, and poultry, eggs, fish, vegetables and wholegrain cereals which are all good sources of B vitamins.