Milk is a tasty and convenient beverage, but not everyone can tolerate it. Humans are unusual in that we drink the milk of other species, and that we continue to consume milk into adulthood. While some people love drinking milk and consuming other dairy products and can do so without issue, there are many others who experience gas, bloating and other difficulties after consuming cow’s milk, or even goat’s milk or other dairy alternatives.
Why Do Some People Struggle to Digest Milk?
Our digestive systems are complex things, and there are many steps involved in the process of digestion. We actually start breaking down our food from the moment it enters our mouths, and from there the digestive process continues in the stomach, and into the intestines. This makes understanding digestive health tricky at times.1
Most people who struggle to digest milk are having issues because they are lactose intolerant.2 This means that their bodies do not produce lactase; the enzyme that is required to break down the sugars that are present in milk and dairy products. Some people get around this by taking lactase tablets so that they can still enjoy the foods that they love. Others opt to stay away from dairy products that cause them issues, and instead to consume non-dairy milk. They may do this because they prefer to stay away from animal products for ethical or environmental reasons, or simply because they want to enjoy the other health benefits of non-dairy milk.
A Comparison of Milk Types
To understand the benefits of non-dairy milk, we need a baseline. Cow’s milk contains around 65 calories per 100ml, of which 3.5g come from protein and 3.7g from fat.3 Cow’s milk is also well-known for its calcium content, but the high-fat content is a concern for some.
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In contrast, most non-dairy milk types contain fewer calories, and less fat, but also often less protein. With that said, the consumption of alternatives such as soy, almond, and rice milk has increased dramatically because of the lack of lactose in those kinds of milk, and also the lack of cholesterol.4 The lack of lactose means that milk alternatives can be tolerated by more people and the lack of cholesterol could be beneficial for those who are worried about their cardiovascular health.
Milk alternatives can be divided into several categories:5
– Pseudo-cereal (e.g. amaranth or quinoa milk)
Cereal-based kinds of milk, such as oat milk, are a good source of polyphenols and antioxidants. Oat milk is thought to have cholesterol-lowering properties, while soy milk is thought to be protective against cancer.6,7 Of the legume kinds of milk, soy milk is perhaps the most popular on the market at the moment and it is also thought to have cholesterol-lowering properties.8 Coconut milk has seen a resurgence in popularity because of its antimicrobial and antibacterial benefits, and also because it is rich in lauric acid, which is thought to help boost the immune system. Unfortunately, coconut milk contains a lot of saturated fats, which means that it is best consumed in only small quantities.
Seed-based kinds of milk, such as sesame milk, are becoming increasingly popular because they are also thought to have cholesterol-lowering and cancer-fighting benefits.9 Research on other more novel kinds of milk, such as amaranth milk, is limited at this time.
The Benefits of Going Dairy Free
Lactose intolerance is the most well-known issue that people who drink milk might face, but there are some other forms of ‘milk allergy’ that can also occur. Allergy to cow’s milk can strike at any time, although it is more commonly found in children than in adults. Milk can cause immune responses through multiple pathways, including something called Eosinophilic Esophagitis, and Food Protein Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome. These reactions are hard to diagnose because they take time to come on, meaning that many sufferers do not connect them to being caused by milk until after the reactions have been going on for some time.10
Stopping the use of cow’s milk or other dairy products, and moving to dairy-free alternatives could help to stop the symptoms mentioned above. Dairy is often a trigger for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, too, and it can cause some people to suffer from chronic constipation.
Many people find that stopping the use of non-dairy products can help improve bowel regularity, and can also help to reduce cravings and to support weight loss.
That’s not to say that you have to stop taking in all dairy products if you want to control your weight. Some studies suggest that the consumption of dairy products can help to reduce weight gain in older women.11 If you are the sort of person that drinks a lot of milk and enjoys yogurts with added sugar, however, then opting for lower calorie plant-based milk for your morning lattes could be a good option for reducing your daily calorie intake.
Should Kids Go Dairy Free?
Switching to dairy-free milk can be an appealing choice for adults, but what about for children? If you have a child that cannot tolerate dairy products for whatever reason, then you should make sure that they are getting enough protein and calcium from other sources. Soy milk is often fortified with calcium, which makes it a good choice for children that cannot drink cow’s milk or goat’s milk.12 Tofu can be a substitute for cheese and is also a good source of calcium because of the way that it is made. If your child does not like the taste of soy milk on its own, consider using it in sauces or in custard, where the taste is less noticeable.
Avoid using coconut milk as a substitute for cow’s milk, because it is very high in calories, but contains less calcium and less protein. In addition, coconut milk is not usually fortified with riboflavin or other nutrients that are essential for a child’s health.
As always, a varied diet is essential to ensure that you and/or your child are getting enough nutrients.
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