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Dairy-free? What’s the Hype?

The first time I ever researched how to have a “healthy” diet, I was told that dairy products should be the first to go (thanks, Google!). Weight loss goals? Try dairy-free. Acne? Try dairy-free. Digestion issues? Definitely try dairy-free. The wellness industry has made an enormous profit off of dairy-free products, due to these misconceptions. My favorite almond milk lattes are $7, to prove my point!

Dairy-free milks are nothing new. Though almond milk became a popular health food item in the early 2000s, it’s been around for years. And by years, I mean centuries. It was developed in the 1200s and became a staple dairy alternative for individuals whose religious doctrines prohibited the consumption of animal products on holidays. Interesting to consider the evolution of plant-based milks since then!

Aside from religious reasons, why do people go dairy-free? Is the choice driven by taste preferences? Fears? Allergies? With all the plant-based milks on the shelves today, you have to wonder why so many individuals are turning away from dairy. Let’s start with some legitimate, non-diet culture reasons for eliminating dairy from your diet.

  1. You are lactose intolerant- Those with lactose intolerance aren’t able to fully break down the sugar (lactose) in milk, often resulting in gas and bloating. Studies show that 68% of the world has some degree of lactose intolerance; however, most people can still eat certain dairy products without experiencing symptoms. Individuals with lactose intolerance can safely consume lactose-free dairy products, like Lactaid brand cow’s milk. Additionally, lactase pills can be taken with dairy products to provide an external source of the enzymes that break down milk sugars.

  1. You have a milk allergy- Dairy is one of the eight most common allergenic foods. An estimated 2% of the population has a milk allergy. Interestingly, 7% of babies under the age of one are affected by this allergy, but most children outgrow it by age five. Individuals with milk allergies experience an immune reaction after exposure to the proteins in milk. This might involve gastrointestinal issues, skin reactions, and/or fever-like symptoms. For people with a true milk allergy, following a dairy-free diet is the only way to avoid an allergic reaction.

  1. It aligns with your religious beliefs- People of various faiths follow vegan diets for religious reasons, resulting in avoidance of dairy products. The origin of almond milk provides a great example of a dairy alternative that stemmed from religious beliefs.

  1. It supports your ethical beliefs- Some people believe the consumption of dairy products, or animal products in general, is unethical. If you’re open to eating dairy but want to purchase slightly more ethical versions, “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed” dairy products are great options.

  1. You genuinely dislike how dairy tastes or makes you feel- This one is simple, and the same guideline applies to all foods. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it! If it doesn’t sit well with you, you’re free to be dairy-free. The key is to listen to your body.

So, what if none of the above reasons apply to you? Is dairy okay to consume? Studies have shown that for many people, the proven health benefits of consuming dairy foods largely outweigh the potential downsides of doing so. Therefore, we have to stop the one-size-fits-all recommendation to go dairy-free. Time to get into the incredible benefits dairy can provide!

  1. Dairy is packed with nutritional value- Dairy is loaded with essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamins A, D, and B12. Calcium not only builds strong bones; your heart, nerves, and muscles also need this mineral to function. Sometimes plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, but not always.

  1. Dairy products are high in protein- Protein is an essential macronutrient that promotes the development of lean muscle and tissue repair. Dairy products like yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, and milk are excellent sources of protein. Cow’s milk specifically contains high-quality proteins that provide all the essential amino acids needed for building and maintaining muscle mass. In contrast, most dairy alternatives contain little to no protein, which can result in reduced fullness and satisfaction levels.

  1. Dairy is the best natural probiotic and prebiotic out there- Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that keep our bodies functioning optimally and help regulate our immune systems. Prebiotic foods are high in certain types of fiber that promote the growth of these healthy gut bacteria. When consumed in adequate amounts, probiotics and prebiotics provide countless health benefits and help maintain the natural balance of the gut microbiota. Yogurt, cottage cheese, and kefir are popular and delicious sources of pre- and probiotics.

  1. Dairy products can prevent chronic diseases- Experts say that consuming three servings of dairy per day is linked to a reduced risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, stroke, metabolic syndrome, colorectal cancer, and heart disease. Dairy also improves bone density and reduces the risk of developing osteoporosis. Research shows that consuming dairy products not only reduces the risk of certain chronic diseases, but might also prevent them.

  1. Dairy products are half the price of dairy alternatives, with half the ingredients- The nationwide average price for a gallon of whole milk is around $2.17. In comparison, many plant-based milks cost $4.29 per half-gallon, and oat milk costs a whopping $5.29 per half-gallon! Let’s be real: it adds up. On another note, dairy products typically have short and simple ingredient lists. Extra ingredients must be added to dairy alternatives to improve their tastes and textures, requiring additional processing.

I imagine you’re wondering… if all of this is true, then why do people continue to fear this nutrient-dense food group that offers a multitude of health benefits? Let’s explore some of the common misconceptions that cause people to avoid dairy unnecessarily.

  1. The belief that dairy-free promotes weight loss- The diet industry is quick to point out that dairy products contain sugar (in the form of lactose), while many dairy-free products are unsweetened. Dairy products can also provide more dietary fat than their alternatives. But there’s nothing magic about cutting out dairy. Truth is, if you restrict a large number of foods from your diet that all happen to be dairy products, you’ll likely enter a calorie deficit and temporarily lose weight. But this has nothing to do with cutting out dairy specifically; instead it relates to the overall reduction in food intake. For many people, a balanced, healthy diet includes an average of three servings of dairy per day.

  1. The belief that all dairy products contribute to acne and inflammation- Research suggests that drinking two or more glasses of cow’s milk per day can increase the likelihood of acne, with findings potentially linked to the hormones in milk. However, research does not support a connection between the consumption of yogurt or cheese and acne risk, so eliminating these foods does not prevent blemishes! And even if milk is associated with acne, most people can drink it in smaller quantities (i.e. less than 2 glasses per day) without increasing the likelihood of breakouts. If you want to adjust your diet to reduce acne, studies suggest that consuming fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, and oats might help. These low-glycemic foods eliminate spikes in blood sugar that promote inflammation in the body (including acne).

  1. The belief that dairy is at the root of all digestive issues- Humans are capable of breaking down dairy unless they have specific digestive disorders (like lactose intolerance) that prevent their bodies from doing so. But many people who suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms are encouraged to eliminate dairy, sometimes unnecessarily. If you’re trying to identify foods that trigger digestive symptoms, should you cut out all dairy temporarily? Forever? Since dairy has so many health benefits, we recommend figuring out if your body can tolerate specific dairy products and/or quantities of dairy without experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, and continuing to include those foods in your diet. A registered dietitian can help you to safely carry out an elimination diet and to reintroduce as many foods as possible!

All of this to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dietary needs and preferences. Everyone is wildly different, with differing beliefs, morals, taste buds, and gut microbiomes. Most people can enjoy dairy to some degree, but find what works best for you! It’s important to understand the impact of your choices and to make informed decisions when it comes to your diet and health. When you feel empowered to make decisions that are right for you and your body’s unique needs, that’s when you’ll feel your absolute best.

Written by Kayla Burston, nutrition volunteer at Restore Family Therapy

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