Some dairy is simply delicious. Who can deny that a cup of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is heaven, or fresh mozzarella melted across a pizza? But for many Americans—about 65 percent of them, to be exact—dairy is the stuff that food nightmares—not dreams—are made of. Here's everything you need to know about lactose intolerance and how giving up dairy can affect your body.
What is lactose intolerance?
People who are lactose intolerant don't produce enough of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down lactose—the sugar in milk—into glucose and galactose. This means that lactose directly moves into the colon instead of being processed or absorbed by the body, which can cause symptoms such as bloating, cramps, diarrhea, and gas. Most people who are lactose intolerant have primary lactose intolerance, which means they were able to digest lactose at some point, say during infancy and childhood, but they later began experiencing digestive discomfort after consuming dairy.
According to a 2019 study published in the scientific journal JAMA Network Open, some 4.7 million U.S. adults are allergic to milk and 2 million are allergic to eggs—reactions that can cause hives, an upset stomach, vomiting, bloody stools, and more.
How to treat lactose intolerance
If you suspect that you’re one of the millions of people who suffers from a dairy allergy, you can make an appointment with an allergist or gastroenterologist to investigate, says Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition in New York. An elimination diet—in which you remove all sources of dairy from your body for up to three weeks—can also reveal if you’re lactose intolerant (this should always be done under the supervision of your doctor or dietitian). After weeks of removing dairy from your diet, you can “reintroduce it for one week,” Zeitlin instructs. “If you notice that your symptoms are back immediately, then you are likely sensitive or intolerant.”
Of course, dairy doesn’t deserve to be totally demonized: It contains important nutrients such as calcium, protein, and magnesium, and in yogurt, probiotics. For those who can tolerate dairy, items such as pasture-raised eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese can help you meet your nutrition goals. And anyone who removes dairy from their diet will need to find replacement sources for these key nutrients. For example, kale and sweet potatoes are good sources of calcium, nuts and edamame provide magnesium, and sauerkraut is rich in probiotics, Zeitlin explains.
In fact, Samantha M. Coogan, MS, RDN, LD, and director of the didactic program in nutrition and dietetics at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, recommends only removing dairy from your diet if it’s medically necessary. Otherwise, you're risking developing a nutritional deficiency.
However, if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, it’s a smart move to stop eating it—and when you do, you can expect positive changes to occur. Here, dietitians break down six things that can happen—from weight loss to glowing skin—when you take dairy out of your diet:
1. You’ll stop experiencing stomach pain, bloating, and gas.
When your body can’t break down lactose, it creates acids and gases in your intestinal tract, says Zeitlin—and those things cause painful stomach cramps, bloating, and gas. When you stop eating dairy, “you should expect to not have any of these icky stomach issues anymore,” Zeitlin says.
2. You might lose a few pounds.
Lactose is sugar, and sugar can contribute to weight gain. When you remove dairy from your diet, “the biggest difference you'll see is your reduction in sugar consumption from the lactose-containing portions of certain dairy products,” says Coogan. Reducing sugar intake is one of the first steps many take towards weight loss.
3. Your bathroom time will be more pleasant.
An unfortunate result of consuming dairy when your body is unable to break it down is diarrhea, says Zeitlin. “Diarrhea happens because your lactose intolerance is increasing the amount of water in your colon when you take in dairy,” she explains. By removing this food group, “you’ll have normal stools,” she says. Constipation can also be a symptom of dairy intolerance. Though it’s not as common as diarrhea, you should also expect to feel a relief from constipation as well because your GI system will be digesting better and therefore degrading waste easier, Zeitlin says.
4. You may improve your overall gut health.
For people who don’t tolerate dairy well, milk, cheese, and other dairy products with additives “can be quite inflammatory and cause irregularities in the gut bacteria,” says Coogan. Those artificial ingredients can cause various sensitivities, as well as overgrowth of yeast and inflammation of the GI tract—which can lead to fatigue, an upset stomach, and nausea. But removing dairy can help to heal your gut and replenish its healthy bacteria over time.
5. Your skin could look better.
"Our bodies purge waste and toxins three ways: urinating, pooping, and through our pores," says Zeitlin. And if you’re sensitive to dairy, that sensitivity may come through your skin in the form of whiteheads, breakouts, rashes, and even eczema. Some research suggests that dairy is associated with an increased risk for developing acne in young adults, but more long-term studies are needed to back up these findings.
6. Your body will be less inflamed.
Inflammation is a serious issue: It can cause “many health issues, such as a dysfunctional thyroid gland or joint pain,” says Coogan. But removing dairy could reduce inflammation for those who are sensitive or allergic to it. Of course, if you’re concerned about inflammation but aren’t sensitive to dairy, there are other ways to reduce it. “Incorporating fish or a fish oil supplement into your diet, or eating more omega-3-rich foods, such as avocados, walnuts, and oils can help reduce inflammation,” she says. In addition to following an antioxidant-rich diet, exercising and meditating can also help lower inflammation caused by stress.
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