Digestive problems and food intolerance often lead to people cutting dairy from their diets; however, research suggests you should rethink limiting or removing dairy as there are ways to make it work for you.
A food allergy occurs when there is an abnormal reaction by the immune system to a component in food, usually a protein.
Food allergy is most commonly seen in early childhood, and occurs in around 5% of children. Food allergy is usually ‘outgrown’ during childhood, except for allergies to nuts, seeds and seafood. About 1% of adults have a food allergy.
In Australia, the true prevalence of allergy to cow’s milk is hard to ascertain. It is believed that only 2% of children under two years of age are truly allergic to cow’s milk.
People allergic to cow’s milk react to the protein components of the milk. If a cow’s milk allergy is suspected, it is best to consult a health professional as eliminating milk and other dairy products from the diet can result in inadequate nutrition, unless an appropriate selection of substitute foods is eaten.
Our Food Allergy fact sheet contains more information.
Digestive problems such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and /or flatulence can be caused due to a number of factors including stress, medication, inadequate exercise and food intolerances. However, people often limit or exclude dairy foods in a quest for symptom relief without consulting a health professional.
With 9 out of 10 Australians not meeting the recommended daily intake from the milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives food group, and over 50% not getting enough calcium in their diets, people are potentially missing out on the important nutrients and health benefits of dairy foods.
People with lactose intolerance experience symptoms such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain, flatulence and/or bloating after consuming lactose. These symptoms occur because the body does not fully digest lactose, a type of sugar that is naturally present in milk and other dairy foods.
As lactose intolerance is sometimes confused with other medical problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it is best to get a diagnosis from a health professional.
Among people diagnosed with lactose intolerance, there are big differences in the amount of lactose that can be consumed without symptoms developing. There is no need to cut out all dairy foods from the diet but rather adjust lactose intake according to tolerance.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest that up to 250ml of milk may be well tolerated if broken up throughout the day and consumed with other foods. Hard cheeses contain virtually no lactose while yoghurt contains good bacteria, which helps to digest lactose.
Lactose-free milks are also a great alternative as they contain similar nutrients to regular milk.
For more information on digestive health visit The Gut Foundation.
Our Lactose Intolerance fact sheet contains more information.
Making dairy work for you
Recent independent research suggests that people who've cut out dairy foods from their diet due to digestive problems can try a 21-day milk-drinking intervention.
This involves starting with half a cup of milk with a meal twice a day in week one, stepping this up to two-thirds of a cup in week two and then one cup during week three.
People who complete the 21-day milk-drinking intervention see an improvement in symptoms and go on to enjoy milk and other dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt as part of their everyday meals and snacks.
Even if the intake of dairy foods is limited due to digestive problems, there are other strategies to try. These may include spreading the intake of dairy foods over the day (rather than too many at once), having dairy foods with meals or having smaller amounts of dairy at a time, to gradually build up better tolerance.