When I was young, my uncle owned and operated a small dairy farm in eastern Quebec. I have fond memories of my cousins and I sneaking into the “milk room” where a HUGE stainless steel tank was full of fresh milk. We would dip our cups into the vat and drink the raw, warm, creamy milk, literally, straight from the cow. It was delicious! I never developed a taste for store-bought, pasteurized white milk, but as I grew older, I did love my chocolate milk. I would drink at least a glass every single day. When I hit my twenties, I would get stomach cramps, gas, and acne, after drinking my beloved chocolate milk. I didn’t know about food allergies at that time, I just thought it was stress, age or something I ate that just didn’t agree with me…little did I know…
Dairy Intolerance (Lactose, Casein, and Whey)
Having a food intolerance is not fun. It can cause abdominal pain, discomfort, and nausea. It also causes embarrassing symptoms like flatulence and diarrhea. Other symptoms linked to food intolerances include muscle or joint pain, headaches, exhaustion, and even skin problems like rashes and eczema.
But what exactly is in dairy foods that many people seem to be so intolerant of? The main components of milk that people react to are lactose, casein, and whey.
Milk sugar (lactose) intolerance
It’s estimated that up to 75% of adults are lactose intolerant. Lactose is the carbohydrate “milk sugar” naturally found in most dairy products. Because lactose intolerance is so common these days, you can buy lactose-free milk in your regular grocery store. Lactose-free products are treated with the enzyme “lactase” that breaks the lactose down before you ingest it. It’s this lactase enzyme that is lacking in most people who are lactose intolerant.
The lactase enzyme is naturally released from your intestine as one of your digestive enzymes. Lactase breaks down the lactose sugar in the gut. When someone doesn’t have enough lactase, the lactose doesn’t get broken down the way it should. Undigested lactose ends up being food for the resident gut microbes. As they ferment the lactose, they create gases that cause bloating, flatulence, pain, and sometimes diarrhea.
Lactose is in dairy but is in lower amounts in fermented dairy (e.g. cheese & yogurt) and butter. Avoiding lactose isn’t that easy as it is added to other foods like baked goods, soups, and sauces too. Lactose is also a common ingredient in medications and supplements, so you may be ingesting lactose without even realizing it.
If you have symptoms of lactose intolerance, keep an eye on food, medication, and supplement labels.
Milk protein (casein & whey) allergy
Milk is a known, and common, food allergen. In Canada, it is considered a “priority allergen” and must be declared on food labels.
So, what are the allergens in milk? You’ve heard of “curds and whey?” Well, these are the two main proteins in milk. The solid bits are the curds (made of casein), and the liquid is the dissolved whey.
Unlike lactose intolerance, casein and whey can cause an actual immune response. It’s an allergy, and this immune response can cause inflammation. In fact, we don’t know how many people have these milk allergies, but estimates put it far below that of lactose intolerance.
Like lactose, these allergenic milk proteins can be found in other products too. They’re not just in dairy but are often in protein powders as well (Have you heard of “whey” protein powders?).
Some of the symptoms of milk protein allergy differ from that of lactose intolerance. Nasal congestion and mucus (phlegm) are more common in an allergy. Casein also seems to be linked with belly fat.
Interestingly, people who have gluten intolerance are often allergic to milk proteins like whey and casein as well. These can go hand-in-hand.
Like lactose intolerance, if you’re allergic to casein and whey read your labels so you can avoid those too.
the next steps…
Do some of these symptoms from eating dairy sound familiar? Do you think you might have a dairy intolerance? If you do, try giving up dairy for two weeks, while keeping a food diary of everything (yup, everything!) that you eat and how you feel after eating. Keep in mind that a food intolerance may take up to 72 hours to show symptoms. It may sound extreme, but there are plenty of foods that you can substitute dairy with. My new favorite is coconut milk. I put it in my coffee and even make coconut ice cream – yum!!
Different kinds of nut milks are also becoming more popular. Almond milk and cashew milk are very easy to make yourself and can be used anywhere you would use cows milk. Everything from nut milk ice cream to yogurt can be found in most grocery stores too. The bottom line is to cut out the cows milk and see how you feel. I know it made a huge difference in my life.
If you get gassy, bloated, or diarrhea after eating dairy, you may have a lactose intolerance. If you often get a stuffy nose and mucus, then you may be allergic to casein and/or whey. If you experience these symptoms, try removing dairy from your diet and replacing it with a dairy free alternative. You may find improved digestion and fewer gut issues, improved nasal congestion, or even less belly fat.
“Dairy is a perfect food….but only if you are a calf” – Dr. Mark Hyman
While dairy may be an entire food group, it is not an essential nutrient. All the nutrients in dairy are available in other foods. A whole foods diet with a variety of vegetables and legumes will ensure you get all the nutrients you need.
Please let me know If you decide to (or have already) removed dairy from your diet, I would be interested to hear about your experience.