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Dairy: Do You Really Need It?

The Truth About Dairy, Milk and Calcium Consumption

Do you ever wonder why some people can digest dairy while others can’t? Here’s something that just might blow your mind. The truth is, no other species but humans can digest milk in adulthood. And many (in some countries, most) adults can’t either.

If you've got questions about dairy’s place in your diet, or you’re wondering why some people can digest dairy while others can’t, read on.

Do Humans Need Dairy?

The short answer? No. The long answer requires a deeper explanation. From a global perspective, over 75 percent of humans, including 25 percent of Americans are unable to digest lactose, the main sugar found in milk.

In this group of people, lactase (the enzyme that helps people digest lactose) stops being produced when they’re between two and five years old, leaving a person unable to process lactose, or lactose intolerant.

All that unprocessed sugar ends up in the colon, where it ferments and produces gas. Cue the bloating, cramping, diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms of lactose intolerance.

And there’s that term. Lactose intolerance. While “lactose intolerance” was once and is still widely used to describe people who can’t process lactose, the accepted terminology in the medical world has changed. Now, “lactose intolerant” people can be regarded as “normal,” while adults who retain the enzymes needed to digest milk are perceived as “lactase persistent.”

If you’re confused as to how 75 percent of the world is unable to digest milk, it’s probably because of where you live. Lactose intolerance is rare in North America, Europe and Australia, but very common in Africa, Asia and South America.

So the moral of the story? Many people in this world live their lives without consuming dairy. Humans are more than capable of getting all the nutrients found in milk in other non-dairy foods.

What are the Pros and Cons of Dairy?

A lactase persistent person can definitely enjoy the health benefits of dairy when consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends adults eat two or three servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy products each day.

Milk contains tons of proteins, fatty acids and micronutrients, and almost 30 percent of your day’s calcium recommendation in just one cup. It also contains vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A and more.

The downside of dairy? It all depends on your body, digestive system and your personal health goals. Full-fat dairy, especially cheese, butter and cream is expectedly high in fat and calories, and consuming too much can lead to weight gain, high cholesterol and other health complications like constipation.

Similarly, fat-free dairy products can include added sugars and chemicals in order to improve taste. There’s always a debate surrounding fat-free or low-fat dairy products versus full-fat dairy products, so be sure to follow the advice of your care provider. They can help you determine what type of dairy is best for your needs and health goals.

But Don’t I Need Calcium?

Yes, you definitely need calcium in your diet, and milk is a great source of it. In fact, it’s recommended that people get around 1000 mg per day. Kids 9-18 years old and adults over 50 should even consume a little more.

Humans need calcium to maintain strong bones and teeth. Calcium also helps decrease the risk of osteoporosis, a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. In any case, when a person has osteoporosis, their bones become weak and could break more easily from a fall. In really serious cases, bones can even break from minor bumps or even sneezing.

Calcium might also lower your risk of kidney stones. In fact, a recent study shows that people who had the highest intake of either dairy or non-dairy calcium were 25 percent less likely to develop kidney stones.

So yes, calcium is very important. But never fear. If you are limiting dairy out of necessity or want, you can still get calcium from plenty of other foods. Non-dairy foods that are high in calcium include broccoli, kale, edamame, spinach, figs, oranges, canned salmon, white beans, tofu and almonds. Another good way to get calcium is from fortified foods like some types of cereals and breads.

What are the Best Dairy Substitutes?

If you’re looking to cut dairy completely or just reduce it from your diet, you’re in luck. Now, more than ever before, there’s a plethora of dairy-free versions of all your favorite dairy products including milk, butter, cheese, ice cream and even chocolate. Many can be found at your local grocery store, or you might have to visit a specialty store to find something specific.

When it comes to milk, you’ve got a ton of options. Stores now offer many different lactose-free varieties of milk, including reduced fat, whole and skim. These products aren’t made with other types of “milk,” they are simply lactose free.

Almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, rice milk are all readily available at grocery stores. Almond milk has quickly become the most popular plant milk in the United States. Many brands are enriched with vitamins, minerals, protein and calcium. It’s 50 percent lower in calories than cow’s milk, which makes it a worth-while substitute for people trying to lose weight, and has no cholesterol because it’s not an animal product. Some nut milks lack protein and other key nutrients, so be sure to speak with your care provider to be sure you’re getting everything you need.

Canola or olive oil are great substitutes for butter or margarine in baked goods, and there are several brands of soy yogurt, sour cream and cheese at your local supermarket.

Speaking of baking, nobody should be left without dessert, even people who are eating dairy-free. Here are a couple dairy-free dessert recipes your whole family can enjoy.

Allergy-Free Ice Cream

Strawberry Sorbet

Oatmeal Cookies

Dairy-Free Fudge

Unless you are unable to process lactose, consuming a moderate of dairy can provide a great source of calcium, protein and healthy fat, and can be a beneficial part of a balanced diet. Talk with your care provider if you think you might be lactose intolerant, or just want to learn more about a dairy-free lifestyle.