Dairy foods are often the topic of debate among nutritionists, due to the many contradictory claims of their potential health benefits vs. the health hazards they may cause. Some people should ultimately go dairy free (like those with some specific conditions discussed below).
There are also certain potential benefits of reducing dairy foods, even for people who do not have specific conditions. Its often up to you to decide your dietary intake for yourself, so here is a breakdown of some facts and evidence that can help you make an informed choice on whether you should go dairy-free or not.
Health benefits of a dairy-free diet
Metabolism is the complete set of biochemical reactions taking place in the body in which foods made up of various macromolecules (like proteins, fats and carbohydrates), are broken down into the fundamental nutrients (like amino acids, fatty acids, glucose, vitamins and cholesterol, among others). These nutrients are then stored as energy in fat and muscle, reserved for when an energy release is needed most.
Hormones and other factors intricately regulate the rate by which these biochemical reactions take place. Since the entire human metabolism is interlinked, any disruption in any part of metabolism can severely impact your health. This is where metabolic disorders can come into play.
Dairy and lactose
Lactose is a type of sugar commonly found in dairy foods. Once ingested, the lactase enzyme breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose sugars, which are then absorbed by the intestines.
In people with lactose intolerance, lactose cannot be broken down into simple sugars or absorbed due to the absence of the lactase enzyme. Consequently, when people with lactose intolerance ingest lactose-rich dairy products, lactose remains untouched in the bowels.
Excess lactose molecules in the gut can cause issues such as:
- Watery diarrhoea
- Stomach bloat and gas due to lactose fermentation
- Stomach pains and cramps
Most adults have varying degrees of lactase deficiency, so even though you may not demonstrate the classic signs of a lactase deficiency, limiting dairy products and foods in your diet or going dairy-free can greatly benefit your bowel health and general well-being.1
You can only find this by experimenting with replacing dairy foods with dairy-free alternatives - you may consider going dairy-free for a couple of days to see if it impacts your dietary health or quality of life.
Cow’s milk protein allergy
Another condition linked to problematic dairy and lactose metabolism is cow’s milk protein allergy - a specific type of food allergy. This condition is usually seen in infants that have been recently introduced to cow’s milk. Babies may be exposed to cow’s milk allergens in milk formulas or breast milk (where the breastfeeding parent has ingested cow’s milk)..
Symptoms can be very nonspecific, but some classic presentations include:
- New onset rectal bleeding (most commonly seen as red-stained nappies)
- Skin rashes
- Bloating and vomiting
Most babies easily tolerate cow’s milk formulas, but if you find your baby to have digestive issues that can’t be explained by anything else, you should consider removing dairy from your or their diet to see if a cow’s milk allergy may be the culprit.
You should also visit your doctor if your baby presents with any of these symptoms, regardless of whether such interventions are effective. Anaphylaxis is particularly serious and potentially life-threatening, so you should seek emergency medical attention if you or your child presents with the symptoms.2
Hereditary galactosemia is a rare genetic condition in which the body cannot metabolise galactose in dairy foods. Galactose is one of the products of the breakdown of lactose (along with glucose), which is normally metabolised within the body's cells. In this rare condition, galactose cannot be metabolised and accumulates in cells, leading to toxic effects and cell death.
Breast milk is highly toxic to infants with galactosemia, but thankfully it can be screened for using newborn blood screening. This means galactosemia can be diagnosed before any complications develop.
People with this galactosemia need to follow a strictly lactose-free diet, and babies are given special formulas without lactose. While there can be long-term complications, the condition can be managed overall with swift diagnosis before birth, regular doctor checkups, and dietary adjustments during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and throughout your child's life.3
Beyond metabolic conditions, many claim that a dairy-free diet can benefit the skin and digestive system, particularly in those with mild to moderate lactose intolerance. Dairy products also sometimes contain hormones, herbicides and pesticides hazardous to human health.
If you find that eating dairy products coincides with otherwise unexplained acne outbreaks or worsening existing acne, a dairy-free diet could benefit you. However, multiple clinical trials suggest that the high hormone content of some dairy products (usually insulin) rather than the presence of lactose causes acne flare-ups. Therefore, while going dairy-free could be an effective strategy for managing your acne, going lactose-free may not necessarily be as effective.4,5,6
Another claim is that animal milk is incompatible with human gut microbiota. However, extensive research has shown that compared to dairy diets (which are rich in healthy probiotic bacteria), those following dairy-free diets significantly increase the risk of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth due to disruption of the gut microbiota, resulting in chronic diarrhoea and other abdominal symptoms. Studies also suggest dairy products have a preventative effect against colorectal cancer. For healthy individuals, unnecessarily eliminating dairy from your diet may do much more harm than good.7,8,9
Other health considerations
Some other health benefits of a dairy free diet include:
- Alleviating symptoms in those with nephrotic syndrome (a type of chronic kidney disease) 10
- Reducing the chance of developing some cancers, including prostate and breast cancer (the correlation between dairy consumption and cancer is minor and would require consuming dairy in excessive amounts)11,12
Nonetheless, you should always consult a doctor or dietician before eliminating a whole food group from your diet, especially if you have other health conditions to manage.
How to go dairy free
Going dairy-free is all about managing and noting food ingredients - you will want to avoid milk and milk products such as cheeses, ice cream, yoghurt or butter. You should also try substituting some of the essential nutrients in dairy with other foods or supplements that contain calcium, vitamin D and protein (see food list below).
In general, labels indicating that a product is “dairy-free” should in fact be completely void of dairy. However, products labelled as “non-dairy” may contain small amounts of dairy proteins. If you're especially looking to avoid lactose, you should look for products labelled as “lactose-free”.
Many processed foods, even if they aren’t dairy products, may also use dairy proteins and fats as stabilizing agents, so that should be considered when checking ingredients.
You can obtain the best advice from a licensed dietician, especially if you consider going dairy-free due to a specific health condition. Dieticians can also give you many healthy and easy-to-prepare dairy-free recipes that make the transition easier.
Best foods for dairy dairy-free diet
Foods that are rich in calcium, vitamin D and/or protein ideal for a dairy-free diet include:
- Leafy greens
- Fish (especially oily fish like salmon)
- Vegan kinds of milk (soy, almond or oat)
- Vegan cheese
Going dairy-free can greatly boost your health, but it cannot single-handedly provide a healthy lifestyle. It may be essential for some with specific conditions (such as cow’s milk allergy or lactose intolerance) to eliminate dairy or lactose products from the diet.
For others, eliminating dairy as a choice (not necessarily out of necessity) can improve skin and digestive health. If you want to eliminate dairy from your diet, it's best to consult a dietician or perform extensive research on how to substitute this food group in your diet.
You should always ensure you are getting all the essential vitamins and minerals you need and eating a varied, balanced diet needed for a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle.
- Di Costanzo M, Berni Canani R. Lactose intolerance: Common misunderstandings. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2018;73(Suppl. 4):30–7.
- Burris AD, Burris J, Järvinen KM. Cow’s milk protein allergy in term and preterm infants: Clinical manifestations, immunologic pathophysiology, and management strategies. NeoReviews. 2020;21(12).
- GT; DDCAIR-GMEB. Hereditary galactosemia [Internet]. Metabolism: clinical and experimental. U.S. National Library of Medicine; [cited 2023Jan15]. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29409891/
- Juhl C, Bergholdt H, Miller I, Jemec G, Kanters J, Ellervik C. Dairy intake and acne vulgaris: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults. Nutrients. 2018;10(8):1049.
- Adebamowo CA, Spiegelman D, Berkey CS, Danby FW, Rockett HH, Colditz GA, et al. Milk consumption and acne in adolescent girls. Dermatology Online Journal. 2006;12(4).
- Baldwin H, Tan J. Effects of diet on acne and its response to treatment. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 2020;22(1):55–65.
- Nalyotov AV, Svistunova NV. Assessment of the state of the small intestine microbiota in children on a long-term dairy-free diet. Problems of Nutrition. 2022;91(2):15–20.
- Pilipenko VI, Isakov VA, Vlasova AV, Naidenova MA. [Features of nutrition pattern of patients with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth resistant to therapy]. Vopr Pitan. 2019;88(5):31-38. Russian. doi: 10.24411/0042-8833-2019-10051. Epub 2019 Sep 19. PMID: 31710785.
- Abid Z, Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat, dairy, and cancer. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014;100(suppl_1).
- Uy N, Graf L, Lemley KV, Kaskel F. Effects of gluten-free, dairy-free diet on childhood nephrotic syndrome and gut microbiota. Pediatric Research. 2014;77(1-2):252–5.
- Lampe JW. Dairy products and Cancer. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2011;30(sup5).
- Fraser GE, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Orlich M, Mashchak A, Sirirat R, Knutsen S. Dairy, soy, and risk of breast cancer: Those confounded milks. International Journal of Epidemiology. 2020;49(5):1526–37.