Cutting out dairy – what you need to know

Dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar free, low carb, paleo… Restrictive eating patterns seem to be the new fad diets. They almost always come with the promise of quick weight loss or some other health benefit, however, their claims rarely have good scientific backing and they can even cause health problems if followed for long periods.

‘Going dairy-free’ can be beneficial, or even necessary, for some people while for others it may provide no benefit or even be unhealthy. We’ve put together a checklist to help you separate the hype from sound health advice if you are thinking about embarking on a dairy-free diet.

Why are you cutting out dairy?

If it’s a way of eating less cakes, biscuits, pastries, butter, cream and desserts that contain dairy… then go ahead and reduce these (you’ll be healthier for it). But you don’t have to miss out on healthy dairy foods, such as yoghurt, milk and cheese. In fact, studies clearly show that including healthy dairy foods is important for meeting nutrient requirements and assists with weight loss.

Understanding the role of dairy foods in a healthy diet

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and is essential for good nutrition and health. Everyone knows calcium is essential for building strong bones and preventing osteoporosis later in life. As a population, never before have we lived healthier, longer lives and our skeletons need to last the distance. Milk, yoghurt and cheese are a rich source of calcium, which is essential for strong bones. Calcium is also used by the body for other vital functions such as cell signalling, blood clotting, muscle contraction and nerve function. In addition to calcium, dairy foods are also a good source of many other nutrients, including phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B12.

Getting enough calcium if you cut out dairy foods

Hands down, dairy foods contain more calcium than other foods. It’s difficult to get enough calcium if you cut out dairy. It is sometimes claimed that foods such as almonds, sesame seeds and broccoli, are good sources of calcium, but it takes large amounts of these foods to come anywhere close to the amount of calcium in dairy foods. For example, one cup (250ml) of light milk contains the same amount of calcium as 6 cups of broccoli, 3½ cups of sesame seeds, 100 almonds or 7 cups of green beans. So, if you are planning on cutting out dairy foods, you will need to plan well to ensure you get enough calcium.

What are the facts and myths about dairy?

Nutrition science is complex and often misrepresented. There are many examples of nutrition information that is misleading or just plain wrong. Some incorrect claims about dairy foods include reports that milk contains additives and that reduced fat dairy foods contain lots of sugar. If milk has anything added, it would need to be stated on the label. While it is true that reduced fat milk contains a larger proportion of lactose (milk sugar), this is due to the fact that if something is removed from a mix, the remaining components are left in a higher proportion. So it follows that when fat is removed from milk the other components remain in a higher proportion than previous. This includes milk sugar (lactose) as well as protein, calcium and all the other nutrients in milk. This is a principle of chemistry, nothing insidious. Reliable sources of accurate nutrition information based on current science include the Dietitians Association of Australia and Nutrition Australia.

Learn More: Is cutting out carbohydrates the key to weight loss or just another fad?

Are dairy foods full of fat?

Dairy foods can be high in fat, particularly saturated fat but not always. Butter and cream are high in fat and contain very little calcium. Reduced fat or skim dairy foods are a good choice to ensure you get sufficient calcium without extra fat. Regular milk is about 4% fat, reduced fat 1-2% and skim milk is only about 0.1% fat. The fat is removed from dairy foods using mechanical methods, not chemical, such as filtering or centrifuging which doesn’t introduce any additional components into milk. It is important to note that reduced fat dairy foods are recommended for adults and children over 2 years.

What are your milk alternatives?

Alternatives to cow’s milk, such as rice, oat, almond, soy or coconut milk have a vastly different nutrition profile. With the exception of soy milk, alternative milks contain little or no protein. To get the same amount of protein from most of the plant-based milks, you would need to drink 7 times as much to get the same amount of protein as in cow’s milk. Milk alternatives are also a poor source of calcium, with most naturally containing no calcium. Some of the milk alternatives available have calcium added, but it’s important to read the label to make sure they have the same amount of calcium added to match the calcium in cow’s milk (check the label and choose those with at least 120mg calcium per 100ml). When you look at the ingredients list of any of the plant-based milks, you can see that they are mainly water, with small quantities of other ingredients. Most almond milk contains only about 2% almonds. In addition, alternative milks undergo extensive processing and are expensive. Plant-based dairy alternatives are not permitted to carry the name ‘milk’ in many other countries because they do not naturally contain many of the beneficial nutrients found in animal milks.

Are you doing the right thing by cutting out dairy?

If you are consulting a health practitioner, ensure you are clear about why they are recommending a dairy-free diet and how you will make up dietary shortfalls if dairy is excluded. An insufficient calcium intake almost always results when dairy foods are avoided. Be particularly cautious about dietary advice from anyone selling various potions and supplements. Getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to be healthy is best from food and has been shown repeatedly in research studies in large numbers of people. Taking supplements for ‘general health’ makes no more sense than taking Panadol ‘just in case you get a headache’. There is absolutely no benefit in nutritional supplements unless you have signs of a deficiency or your diet has been thoroughly reviewed and you aren’t meeting the recommended dietary intake of a specific nutrient. An Accredited Practising Dietitian can review your diet and determine whether you are missing out on any nutrients and, if so, discuss the dietary changes that may help you meet your requirements.

Reliable diagnosis of any reaction to dairy foods is important

Diagnosis of allergic reactions to cow’s milk are usually obvious, by confirmation may require a referral to a clinical immunology/allergy specialist. Not all reactions to cow’s milk are due to allergy and may be an intolerance. Allergy tests are negative for food intolerances, which are diagnosed by trialling the elimination of certain foods and, if symptoms improve or resolve, reintroducing them systematically to identify which and how much of the food triggers symptoms again.

One example of a dairy intolerance is lactose intolerance, which is caused by a lack of the enzyme ‘lactase’ that helps to digest the milk sugar, lactose. Symptoms may include diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pain, and gas. This condition is uncomfortable but not dangerous and it is possible to increase the tolerance to lactose in some people by gradually increasing the amount of dairy foods.

How do you know that dairy is the problem?

The exception, of course, is a confirmed dairy allergy which requires strict avoidance of dairy protein. However, if you don’t have a diagnosed dairy allergy but are eliminating dairy foods due to specific symptoms, it’s best trial a dairy-free diet, then reintroduce dairy foods systematically and see whether you feel better. Even if you react to dairy foods, you may be able to have small amounts without symptoms. Experiment with the amount you can tolerate so that you are not unnecessarily eliminating healthy dairy foods that provide your body with an inexpensive, convenient and healthy source of good nutrition.


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Further reading:

Visioli F and Strata A. ‘Milk, Dairy Products, and Their Functional Effects in Humans: A Narrative Review of Recent Evidence’. Advances in Nutrition: An international review journal http://advances.nutrition.org/content/5/2/131.full

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