There are many reasons why you may need to follow a dairy-free diet, including being vegan or for health reasons. Symptoms such as bloating or eczema when you eat or drink dairy products could mean you have an allergy or intolerance to dairy or lactose.
What is a dairy allergy?
An allergy and intolerance are very different, although these terms are often used interchangeably. If you have an allergy to cows’ milk, your immune system identifies the proteins in it (albumin, casein or whey) as dangerous. This triggers your body’s defences, which usually causes immediate symptoms such as bloating, vomiting, diarrhoea and/or constipation, skin conditions like eczema, asthma, headaches, or joint pain.
This response can be triggered by a very small amount of milk protein, so the only treatment is to remove all cows’ milk and any products containing it from your diet. See your GP if you think you may have an allergy.
What causes lactose intolerance?
A dairy intolerance occurs where a substance – commonly lactose – causes unpleasant symptoms, but does not involve the immune system. Although less severe, an intolerance may also trigger digestive and skin symptoms.
Lactose is a sugar contained in all animal milks (cow, goat and sheep). We make an enzyme in our guts called lactase, which breaks down the lactose in the milk to be absorbed. Some people do not produce enough lactase to digest the sugar, causing gastrointestinal problems.
A dairy intolerance can also be the result of an inability to break down proteins in cows’ milk. However, some people may be able to consume small amounts of dairy products and feel fine, particularly further processed products such as such as live yoghurt or cottage cheese.
Following a dairy-free diet
Whether you’re lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy or have decided to cut out dairy for other reasons, food labels are a good place to start. Keep an eye on ingredient lists on ready-made and processed food, and create your own list of suitable food. Bear in mind that dairy products can be found in everything from bread and biscuits to ready meals and cheese flavoured crisps.
Cutting out dairy foods from your diet can seem like a daunting process. Dairy products are found in products ranging from bread and ready meals, to sauces and vegetable fats. Get into the habit of reading labels and creating a ‘safe foods’ list of the products you can eat such as these:
- Soya milk, cream, yoghurt and cheese – you can buy sweetened and unsweetened, flavoured and plain, fortified and unfortified.
- Coconut milk, cream and oil in cooking.
- Plant-based milk substitutes, including rice, oat and almond.
- Dairy-free spreads, but check the labels as some contain whey or casein.
Is dairy-free chocolate available?
Milk chocolate obviously contains milk and often other dairy ingredients such as milk fat. High-quality dark chocolate is normally lactose-free but always check the label. You can buy dairy-free alternatives to milk chocolate, from bars to coated raisins.
What nutrients am I missing on a dairy free diet?
As milk and other dairy products contain several nutrients, it is important to ensure these are sourced from other foods or supplements to avoid any nutritional deficiencies. Calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 are just some of the nutrients found in dairy products. They help to build strong bones and teeth and keep the nervous system healthy. You can also find these essential vitamins in foods like oily fish, green leafy vegetables and nuts.
How does a dairy free diet affect the skin?
With dairy free diets on the rise, the possibility of better skin is just one of the reasons why many people are giving up milk and dairy products in favour of a vegan or dairy-free lifestyle.
Whilst studies have not shown strong links between dairy and skin conditions like acne; dairy allergies can trigger itchiness, hives and eczema along with various other reactions. Though less severe, those with lactose intolerance can suffer from inflammation and skin reactions from dairy consumption.
This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies
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