Is dairy bad for me?

Some people swear by dairy, claiming that it’s essential for strong bones and teeth and a generally strong constitution. Others feel that their bodies react poorly to dairy, with resulting increased mucous levels, stomach pains and congestion. So is dairy good or bad for you?

Well, as with most things, the answer depends on a number of factors, including the make-up of your own individual body, as well as whether you are consuming dairy in moderation. There is no denying the fact that dairy is, for one thing, acid-forming in the body, which can lead to inflammation and, as such, you should not be consuming dairy in excess. It is also high in saturated fat and, unless you are careful, can often contain contaminants (such as hormones and medication).

Dairy allergy

In this modern age of dietary awareness, many people may jump to the conclusion that they have a full-blown dairy allergy if they have a negative response to dairy. However, this may not always be the case. If in doubt, consult your doctor or an allergy-testing clinic.

A true dairy allergy is when the body goes into shock (or has an anaphylactic reaction) after ingesting dairy and is the response of the immune system to the proteins found in dairy products. Casein and whey are the two main components. Casein is the curd that forms when milk is left to sour, while the watery part that is left after the curd is removed is the whey.

A dairy allergy is an extreme sensitivity to these proteins and should not be confused with lactose intolerance.

Most symptoms of a dairy allergy (commonly hives, congestion and eczema) manifest within minutes after the person consumes dairy products. A dairy allergy can be mild or serious and varies among individuals. For example, the reaction can range from mild indigestion to anaphylaxis, which is an acute reaction.

Dairy allergies are a common problem, particularly amongst young children. Since children affected by dairy allergies are often too young to tell you when they are having a reaction, it is important for parents to be able to recognise the symptoms and have a proper understanding of foods and ingredients to avoid. Fortunately, it is one of the food allergies that has alternatives and is not always a permanent problem.

Lactose intolerance

A dairy allergy is commonly mistaken for lactose intolerance because they share similar digestive symptoms, but in actuality, a dairy allergy is very different to a lactose intolerance.

In contrast to a true dairy allergy (where there is an immune system response whenever exposed to cow’s milk proteins), people with a lactose intolerance can’t tolerate the sugar in milk (called lactose), because they don’t have the corresponding digestive enzyme – lactase – to cope with lactose sugar. An intolerance is not an allergy, because it does not involve the immune system.

A lactose intolerance is less threatening than an allergy. Triggered by the digestive system, the body can respond in a number of ways to the ingestion of lactose, but it usually involves a significant stomach upset. Symptoms can include extreme gas, bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach cramps, but not usually hives or breathing difficulties.

Living with a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance

The primary treatment for a dairy allergy is avoidance. Depending on severity, this will be either total elimination or limited consumption of dairy products.

However, there are a number of other techniques that can be used to live with both dairy allergies and lactose intolerances.

As with all food allergies and sensitivities, it is important to take allergy tests or go on an elimination diet to confirm that dairy is responsible for the reactions. Confirmation is extremely useful, because a wide array of foods can cause reactions and it is important to narrow down the true allergen.

Clearly, having a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance can present a very real day-to-day challenge in terms of ensuring a varied diet and optimum intake of nutrients. As with any restricted diet (for example, vegetarians, vegans and coeliacs) it is important to take proactive steps to ensure that the person with the allergy or intolerance is getting sufficient vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

One of the easiest ways to do this is through careful dietary planning and supplementation. Dairy-free and lactose-free meal shakes and protein powders can be particularly beneficial, especially if they have been fortified with other nutrients.

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