Newest Review: ... dairy proteins and can trigger the immune system to react. Depending on which part of the immune system responds, you may be diagnosed con... more
Dairy products - poison or paradise?
Member Name: beckyX
Date: 26/08/11, updated on 26/08/11 (80 review reads)
Advantages: Less cholesterol in diet
Disadvantages: Can't eat out, get ill lots
As many of you who have read my food reviews know, seeking out dairy free food is a dull but necessary chore for me, because I'm an asthmatic and (as is quite common for asthmatics) my body is not equipped to handle dairy. In this review, I discuss various types of dairy intolerances and other hypersensitivities, including lactose intolerance, milk protein intolerance and allergy. Most of this is based on my own experiences and reading on the subject after diagnosis (i.e. I have no medical training). I would strongly advise anyone who believes they may have a dairy intolerance or an allergy to talk to a medical professional about it.
If you look at the adult population of the entire world, then tolerance of dairy is unusual, being an adaption that only occurred after humans started domesticating animals. Sadly, since I live in Western Europe, dairy is ubiquitous in the Western diet and is rather hard to avoid.
To most people, the terms "lactose intolerance", "dairy allergy", "milk protein intolerance" and "dairy intolerance" are synonymous, but they actually cover a variety of conditions, which I will cover briefly in this review.
==What is the "bad" stuff in the dairy?==
There are three common things in dairy that your body may not be able to process: lactose, whey and casein. People who cannot have dairy may have problems with any or all of these, and you may need the help of an allergist to diagnose which it is.
Lactose is a sugar that many people do not have the right enzymes to digest. This condition is called lactose intolerance and is by far the most common reason that people cannot have dairy. Happily, this condition is partly controllable for some people by the use of lactase tablets and by avoiding milk. Many people find that they can tolerate small amounts of lactose, and that they just have to make sure that they don't have too much.
Whey and casein are both dairy proteins and can trigger the immune system to react. Depending on which part of the immune system responds, you may be diagnosed conditions called "Milk protein intolerance" or "dairy allergy". These conditions are much harder to treat, other than by the complete elimination of dairy products.
==What is the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?==
A food intolerance is where your body reacts in a negative way to normal, harmless foodstuffs that are not toxic. Although many people refer to such an intolerance as being allergic to a food, this is not really the case.
An allergy is a very specific type of hypersensitivity reaction where your body produces ig-E antibodies to something harmless. It does not necessarily mean it is a severe reaction, nor does it mean it is a permanent one (as evidenced by the large number of snuffly wheezy toddlers who grow out of it). There are a number of other ways that your immune system can react to food, so although these may not be a true allergy, they can still be very dangerous.
Some tests that can help to diagnose that dairy is a problem include blood tests and skin prick tests. However, these will not detect lactose intolerance, delayed immune reactions or non-ig-E mediated reactions and an elimination diet may be needed to determine whether dairy can be tolerated or not. A really good allergist can spot a dairy intolerance or allergy through the pattern of symptoms alone.
==What are the symptoms?==
This depends on whether your body cannot have lactose or dairy proteins. The most common symptoms after eating a dairy product are digestive problems such as bloating, cramps, stomach upsets, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. These can happen for lactose intolerance, dairy protein intolerance and dairy allergy alike.
In people for whom the immune system is involved (whether this is a milk protein intolerance or a milk protein allergy), the immune system attacks other organs as well, leading to inflammation and mucous production. Commonly, this leads to persistent eczema, hives, "hayfever", asthma and migraines. More rarely, it will cause persistent acid reflux, affect joints, and even cause anaphylaxis.
==Can you grow out of it?==
Lots of children have problems with dairy and then grow out of it when they are older. But generally, over the world, dairy tolerance decreases once you reach adulthood, so this is usually something you grow into, not grow out of! Many lucky people of Northern European descent have inherited an adaptation to be able to eat dairy as an adult (dairy tolerance has a prevalence of 85-95% in Britain where I live), so if you are lucky enough to be dairy tolerant, then consider yourself one of the fortunate few!
==Can it be treated?==
Sometimes, depending on severity and how many organs are affected - really, this is something that you need to discuss with a specialist. If it is just your digestion, you may be able to manage with reduced dairy consumption, consuming low-lactose milk, switching to goat milk or taking digestive remedies. Some people with slight allergies can get away with just taking an antihistamine or topical steroid product (e.g. an inhaler). Generally, milk protein intolerance and dairy protein allergy can only be treated by complete elimination of dairy from the diet, with the assistance of a dietician to make sure you keep your diet balanced.
==What dairy products can non-dairy people have?==
If you are cooking for someone and you don't know the answer to this, then PLEASE assume the answer is none because it is better to be safe than sorry. People with milk protein intolerance and dairy protein allergy can't generally have goat's milk, low-lactose milk, sheep milk, cream, ice cream, yoghurt, butter or cheese. People with lactose intolerance often MAY be able to have some or all of these, depending on the severity of their condition and how "under the weather" they are at that time, and it may fluctuate a lot.
==What alternatives are there?==
Happily, there are a large number of replacements to dairy products that can be consumed instead so that you don't need to make extensive changes to your diet just because you have to give up dairy. There are a large number of non-dairy milk alternatives, including soya, rice, oat, quinoa and coconut. Many of these are fortified with calcium.
Other soya alternatives include soya cream (yum), soya yoghurts (yum) and soya cheese (yuk!).
One of the main reasons you should talk to a nutritionist is to make sure you get enough calcium in your diet and enough vitamin D and K so that your body can absorb it. Calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones. My advised amount is 1000 mg of calcium a day, though you should check this independently as it depends on your age, sex and whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Although many green leafy vegetables contain calcium, it's pretty hard to get enough calcium if you don't eat dairy unless you plan your diet carefully. Plus, who really wants to eat six heads of broccoli a day? I personally take a dietary supplement and make sure that I eat a lot of calcium-fortified foods.
Watch out for hidden dairy in processed foods - a large number of biscuits and chocolate contain whey powder. Allergy warning panels are very helpful, whatever it is in the dairy that disagrees with you.
==Some surprising safe foods==
Surprisingly, many foods are actually safe. Many brands of jam doughnuts, chocolate bourbon biscuits and 70% or greater chocolate are non-dairy.
Although it is a frustrating experience to be unable to eat dairy, there are a lot of alternatives available these days, so it isn't the disaster it once was. However, there is still a long way to go. Next time you eat out, why not ask whether the restaurant or cafe you are at has anything non-dairy (or even vegan)?
Summary: Adult inability to eat dairy is the norm in most of the world, but it is very annoying.
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