It seems like with every day that passes, there’s another major food group we’re supposed to cut out of our diets. We’ve seen the rollercoaster-like rise and fall of cutting out carbs, and fats that were once avoided like the plague are now considered a key part of a balanced diet. Now, another food group is at risk for becoming a fit girl wannabe’s public enemy #1: dairy.
Health-conscious celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian, Megan Fox and Beyonce have all gone dairy-free, according to E! News. But does that mean a collegiette like you should too? If you aren’t lactose intolerant, is there a point to cutting out Greek yogurt, cream in your coffee or, if you’re like Corinne from The Bachelor, your cheese pasta?
Well, it depends! Just because you aren’t lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, doesn’t mean you might not have a sensitivity to dairy. According to registered dietician Jenny Dang, an allergy involves your immune system, while a sensitivity means your body has trouble digesting certain foods.
“A food allergy occurs when your body’s immune system reacts to a food protein,” explains Dang. “Common signs and symptoms are tingling in the mouth, itching, swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and throat, and can be life-threatening.”
A sensitivity is not life threatening, although it can cause varying levels of discomfort while your body tries to break down certain foods.
According to Dr. Scott Schreiber, a certified nutrition specialist and dietician, one factor in the prominence of dairy sensitivity is the varying levels of the protein casein from human milk to cow’s milk.
“From a physiological standpoint, the purpose of milk is for build up immunity and provide nutrition for young calves,” says Dr. Schreiber. “Due to the cross-species consumption of milk, the human body is not equipped or prepared to digest another species milk. In fact, human milk and cow milk has a very different chemical make up. Cow milk has a lot more casein, which can cause irritation to the digestive tract.”
In addition, dairy sensitivity can be the underlying cause of many diseases, like leaky gut syndrome, small intestine bacterial growth or irritable bowel syndrome.
“It may not be an overt pathology, but can be a hidden cause of many diseases,” explains Dr. Schreiber.
According to Melanie Jatsek, registered dietitian and creator of The Healthy You program, symptoms of a dairy sensitivity include gas or bloating after consumption, headaches, asthma, acne or even ear infections.
It’s not exactly easy to tell if dairy is the sole culprit behind these, though.
For people with a gluten sensitivity, dairy can also have a negative effect because milk proteins can cross-react with gluten, according to Jatsek. Cross-reacting means your body could confuse proteins in dairy with those in gluten, since they are similar in structure.
So, how do you know if dairy is the culprit behind any suspicious bodily reactions?
“To see if you have a dairy sensitivity, the best test is elimination of all dairy products for three weeks to see how you feel,” advises Jatsek. “If your symptoms improve then you are probably sensitive to dairy.”
If you find after eliminating dairy that you generally feel better, there are many ways to substitute dairy products.
“There are countless dairy-free, plant-based options you can use to replace milk, yogurt and cheese,” says Jatsek. “Nut milks such as unsweetened almond or coconut milk are good choices, just make sure there is no sugar in the ingredient list, as well as unsweetened coconut yogurt and cashew-based cheeses.”
Related: 11 Best Dairy-Free Snacks
Additionally, if you opt to cut out dairy, there are other ways to maintain necessary calcium consumption. Foods like leafy greens, fish with bones and almonds get you your calcium fix.
“Protein and calcium are in every food,” says Dr. Schreiber. “High sources of protein include beans, lentils, quinoa, leafy and greens. Sources of calcium include spinach, kale, and broccoli. In addition, calcium is not as important for bone health as once thought. Science shows that vitamin D is much more important.”
There are also options like Lactaid, which is 100 percent real cow’s milk but with an added enzyme called lactase which helps break down the lactose in dairy products (aka if you are lactose intolerant, your body can’t break it down on its own so it needs this lactase enzyme).
If you find that you aren’t sensitive to dairy, should you still give it up? As it turns out, many dieticians are split on the issue. There are numerous health benefits associated with consuming dairy, but also some drawbacks.
Jatsek and Dang don’t see a reason to cut out this entire food group if you don’t have a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy.
“Assuming an individual is not sensitive, there are some studies showing people who consume full-fat dairy have lower risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, smaller waist circumference, lower triglycerides, higher HDL cholesterol and lower C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation,” says Jatsek.
One of the biggest risks associated with giving up dairy is missing out on all the nutrients dairy can provide. Dairy is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, all of which support healthy growth.
“If you are not medically diagnosed with an allergy or food intolerance and are following a dairy-free diet, your body could be missing out these essential nutrients, especially if you are not getting them from other food sources,” says Dang. “For individuals without any food intolerances or allergies, dairy foods are safe to eat and can be included as part of a healthy eating pattern.”
However, there are advocates for completely eliminating dairy, regardless of sensitivity levels, including Schreiber and certified nutritional chef Melissa Eboli.
“Dairy products do much more harm than good,” says Dr. Schreiber. “They have been implicated as a cause of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, digestive disease and cancer.”
Eboli agrees that dairy offers health benefits like calcium and vitamin D, but there may be more negatives than positives in the long run.
“In my professional opinion there are more negatives to consuming dairy than positives,” she says. “As a disadvantage, dairy is both an acidic and inflammatory substance. Also, many forms of dairy contain RBGH (reproductive bovine growth hormones) which has a direct correlation to breast cancer.”
Dr. Schreiber also thinks eliminating dairy completely could be beneficial, and explains that research around dairy consumption has suggested correlations to several medical conditions, from obesity to prostate cancer to acne.
“Studies have shown that milk consumption increases levels of insulin-like growth factor, a known substance to cause cancer,” says Dr. Schreiber. “In fact, research shows that increasing calcium and dairy products raising risk of prostate cancer by 30-50 percent.”
In the end, cutting out dairy will affect every person in a slightly different way, and it’s not necessarily the secret or easy key to losing weight that we’ve all been waiting for. If you don’t feel great after a bowl of ice cream, a grilled cheese, or yogurt, consider dropping dairy temporarily and evaluate how it makes you feel. At the end of the day, it’s a personal decision that should be made after consulting with your doctor.
“For anyone who is trying to see if dairy is the culprit of their health issues, I urge you to try a dairy elimination for two weeks to see if you notice a difference,” advises Eboli. “After two weeks ask yourself: Did you skin clear up? did your nausea and bloating go away? Is your asthma more at bay? or has your joint pains decreased? Then, work it back into your diet after those two weeks and see if any of the issues that may have gone away come back for additional affirmation.”
Consuming dairy will affect everyone in a different way, and depending on your body, eliminating it might have a major impact, or you might not notice a difference. It is a personal decision with unique repercussions for everyone. If you decide to try going dairy free, make sure you consult a doctor first and maintain a balanced diet to get necessary nutrients from other sources.