Why Are People Avoiding Dairy?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Why are people avoiding dairy?

Dairy is a fantastic source of protein, calcium, and oftentimes, probiotics. It’s creamy and delicious plus it adds flavor and texture to sweet and savory recipes alike. With all these noteworthy attributes, why are people choosing to ditch dairy?

 

It’s not about being allergic.

  • About 2.5% of children under the age of three are allergic to milk.
  • Up to 75% of those children eventually grow out of it.
  • Less than 2% of American adults are allergic to milk

So, most people are ditching dairy for other reasons.

Some may be ethically opposed to eating animal products all together. Others do it for the physical impact it may have on their health. And with so many non-dairy alternatives to choose among these days, making the swap is certainly tempting.

Let’s take a closer look at who may be avoiding dairy and why…

People With Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a general term for unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms, such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gas and more. It is usually diagnosed once food allergies or other illnesses causing similar symptoms have been ruled out.

Lactose intolerance
Dairy products are often suspected as a cause of discomfort, as it is estimated that about 35% of US adults don’t have enough lactase to breakdown the lactose in dairy. This is what is referred to as lactose intolerance.

Why are so many people lactose intolerant?
Some people are born with insufficient lactase. In others, lactase production can be like a muscle that atrophies when not used. As adults, we tend to drink less milk than we did as toddlers, and often, the result is that our ability to produce lactase declines over time.

Additionally, lactose intolerance can develop after intestinal illnesses or injury.

For those who are lactose intolerant, symptoms vary. Some people have gastrointestinal discomfort after a small amount of dairy, like a piece of hard cheese, which happens to be a lower-lactose dairy product. Others only feel symptoms after eating a larger portion of high lactose foods, such as a glass of milk or bowl of ice cream.

Fortunately, in milder cases, the whole dairy food group doesn’t have to be eliminated.

How do I know if I’m lactose intolerant?
It is common to self diagnose lactose intolerance by avoiding lactose for a few weeks and assessing if symptoms dissipate.

But, a hydrogen breath test conducted by a medical practitioner can actually confirm this hunch. It’s a more efficient process because if the test is negative, other etiologies can be investigated.

This is how it works:
1. Participants drink a glass of milk (or consume another high lactose food).
2. The body takes time to processes it.
3. If there’s undigested lactose it will be fermented, releasing hydrogen gas.
4. The amount of hydrogen detected in your breath can confirm malabsorption.

Depending on the severity of intolerance, people may decrease lactose intake, take lactase pills (or enzymes), use lactose-free products, or avoid lactose entirely.

A2 Milk
If the breath test is negative, there is another more recent theory suggesting that the protein in milk (rather than lactose, which is a carbohydrate) can cause unpleasant intestinal symptoms, too.

The brand A2 Milk is a product formulated without that specific protein. Research on this theory is spotty, but some people appreciate the option.There’s no harm to A2 milk besides the higher price tag. And remember A2 will still contain lactose.

People with Acne
I personally had acne, braces, and frizzy hair. The teenage trifecta.

Somehow I made it through (ok, the frizzy hair is still a struggle) but it was an especially difficult few years. For some, it’s a long and challenging battle that lasts through adulthood.

The kicker is that no one really knows the exact cause of those pesky pimples. There are genetic and environmental factors at play such as pollution, smoking, diet, and sleep quality, just to name a few.

Acne & Diet Link
Some try changing their diets in hopes for results.

We all know friends who avoided greasy foods because it made their faces greasy (which we now know is untrue), or those who stayed away from chocolate because it made their skin breakout (also not proven).

But, more recently people are blaming dairy for causing their breakouts. Here are the two theories behind this concept:

1. Milk contains hormone precursors, such as those for Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1), which may lead to breakouts
2. The natural sugar in milk (lactose) increases IGF-1, which in turn increases inflammation and sebum production

Skim Milk
Skim (or non-fat) milk, specifically, has been the focus of studies linking dairy and acne. This is because of the double whammy: it contains hormone precursors found in dairy products and it’s high in glycemic load. In contrast, whole milk has fat, which balances the lactose.

Though some studies have published results to support this, others have shown the opposite effects. Simply stated, research on the topic is inconclusive.

So Should We Try It?
I wouldn’t recommend going dairy-free to help cure acne. The American Academy of Dermatology agrees.

In general, eliminating whole food groups to remedy physical ailments (for other reasons other than allergies) can be problematic because we may miss out on a unique combination of nutrients. The odds are high that avoidance can lead to more harm than good.

For those who feel going dairy-free keeps acne at bay, and are happy with this decision, keep doing what feels good for you. Just make sure to get calcium and probiotics from alternative sources.

Does Dairy Cause Cancer?
The American Cancer Society (ACS) website states: “Some research has linked diets high in calcium and dairy products to a lower risk of colorectal cancer, and possibly breast cancer as well. However, some studies have also suggested that calcium and dairy products might increase prostate cancer risk.”

Because of the variations in study results, and the links to specific cancers and not others, The ACS doesn’t recommend dairy, but they don’t say to avoid it either.

And though there may be value in avoiding any food with a possible link to cancer, health and nutrition encompasses more than one isolated food or nutrient. It’s the whole picture over a very long time frame, and that’s what makes it so very hard to pinpoint a dietary culprit if, in fact, there is one.

Key Takeaways
Avoiding dairy is a personal choice. It has roots and reasons way above and beyond what we have covered here, including environmental sustainability, morality, and preference.

There is no right or wrong answer. The benefits of dairy may outweigh the risks for you; or vice versa, and that’s your choice. Fortunately, dairy alternatives abound.

For those trying to self-treat aches, pains, and other afflictions (beyond medical reasons such as allergies) beware that eliminating certain foods or food groups is not without risk and often may do more harm than good.

Because this topic is so broad, and is difficult to cover in a single post, please share any further questions or comments below. Perhaps we can address them in a Dairy Post #2!

REFERENCES

Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. (2013). Acne: The Role of Medical Nutrition Therapy. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 113:416-430.

Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K. (2014). Relationships of Self-Reported Dietary Factors and Percieved Acne Severity in a Cohort of New York Young Adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 114:384-392.

“Can The Right Diet Get Rid of Acne?” Accessed August 2021. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/causes/diet

“Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention. Accessed August 2021. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention.html

LaRosa C, Quach K, Koons K, Kunselman A, Zhu J, Thiboutot D, et al. (2016). Consumption of Dairy in Teenagers With and Without Acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 75: 318-322.

“Milk Allergy.” Accessed August 2021. Food Allergy Research & Education. http://www.foodallergy.org/living-food-allergies/food-allergy-essentials/common-allergens/milk

 

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Comments

  1. Gail Miller

    As a retired RD (RD, CNSD,CDN) I thank you for your well researched article and the fact that you were able to lay out the information in easily understood terms. Well done! I’m sure many of your readers learned a lot; I’d also like to think that some people re-considered their thoughts on the issue. Looking forward to your writings on other topics

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Gail, I love to hear feedback from other RDs. Thank you so much for following along. If you have ideas about other nutrition topics you think our readers may enjoy, feel free to reach out!

      Reply