milkAround 60% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. Some statistics say the number can be as large as 75%. That means up to 75% of the world is going around bloated, gassy, uncomfortable, and dealing with other less obvious symptoms as a direct result from eating dairy. Some may realize the connection immediately. Others may have a difficult time linking eczema, skin issues, headaches, and bloating with the consumption of dairy. Even if the link is obvious, we are constantly bombarded with messages that dairy is essential for strong bones, so the dairy issue can be confusing. Should we ditch the dairy or continue to eat it despite lactose intolerance? What’s the deal with dairy?

Lactose intolerance comes from the inability to break down lactose – the sugar in dairy – into glucose – the sugar our body needs. An enzyme called lactase, is required for the job, but most adults have lost some of the ability to produce lactase. Lactase is present in our bodies when we are born, because lactose is present in all milks, including breast milk. A baby needs the enzyme in abundance to convert the lactose to glucose. However, once weaned, we diminish our lactase supplies. Without lactase in our intestines, dairy ends up feeding the “bad bugs” that reside in our intestinal tract. As a result, they produce by-products of methane and CO2, which give you that gassy feeling.

The lactase enzyme diminishes with age, but may not completely go away. As a result, many people can handle small amounts of dairy like a bit of cheese or yogurt, but may not be able to drink a glass of milk or eat a bowl of ice cream. You may not have to cut dairy out completely, but it may be wise to limit your consumption so to preserve your lactase stores.

Your cultural background has a lot to do with your ability to break down lactose. For instance, nearly 100% of East Asians are lactose intolerance, while only 5-15% of Northern European cultures have difficulty with dairy. A 2005 Cornell University study found that it is primarily people whose ancestors came from places where dairy herds could be raised safely and economically, such as in Europe, who have developed the ability to digest milk.

Dairy can also be disruptive to those who cannot break down casein – the protein in milk – or actually are allergic to it. A food allergy occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly thinks the protein is harmful and begins to attack it, causing hives, rashes, or more severe symptoms.

Aside from allergies and intolerances, Chinese Medicine claims that dairy is one of the main sources of “phlegm,” or congestion in the body. This phlegm is the cause for many conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, eczema, ear infections, colic, and seasonal allergies. Often, these symptoms go away with the elimination of dairy products, especially milk.

So what can you drink if you have a problem with milk? Alternative products like nut, grain, soy or coconut milks fill the grocery shelves, offering an array of options. But are these good for you? I would exercise caution because many contain fillers, gums, emulsifiers and a lot of sugar. Of all the options, I prefer coconut milk, as this contains the least additives and you can easily find pure options. You can also make your own nut milks by soaking nuts overnight and blending them into milk. This way you control the ingredients and the sugars.

Finally, whenever dairy is mentioned, the argument for calcium pops up. The need for milk as a main calcium source is a common assumption. We are told from an early age that in order to build strong bones, you need a lot of calcium. But that is not the case. In fact, if you want to build bones, you need a variety of nutrients like Vitamin D, silica, magnesium and phosphorus. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods, combined with exercise, sunlight and ways to address stress, will create a recipe for strong bones.  For instance, calcium, along with other vital micronutrients is found in leafy greens, sesame seeds, okra, figs, almond butter and sunflower seeds. Additionally, strong bones require limiting sugar, caffeine, animal proteins, and tobacco, as these deplete the bones of essential nutrients.

So, in summary, what’s the deal with dairy? Dairy, while it can be easily assimilated by some, may be harmful to others. The best way to figure out whether your body considers dairy safe or harmful is to pay attention to your body after eating dairy. How does it respond? If you suspect dairy intolerance, then eliminate it from your diet for a few months to see if your conditions improve. If so, you may want to consider reducing your intake of dairy or avoiding it completely.  When you take time to tune-into your body, you gain a valuable awareness that will guide you for a lifetime.