You may be avoiding dairy products because of lactose intolerance. Or you might have other reasons. But dairy products are a major source of calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients that are important for your body. If you’re avoiding dairy products, you need to take special care to make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients.
Our heart, muscles and nerves need calcium to work properly. Our bones need it to grow and stay strong. The body also needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Nutrition surveys have shown that most people in the U.S. aren’t getting the calcium they need. If you’re avoiding milk and dairy products, you may be missing out on important sources of calcium and vitamin D.
One of the major reasons people avoid dairy products is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. You become lactose intolerant if your body doesn’t have enough lactase—an enzyme produced in the small intestine that you need to digest lactose. Undigested lactose can cause stomach cramps, gas and diarrhea within 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating something with lactose.
Lactose intolerance isn’t common in young children, but many people gradually lose their ability to digest lactose after childhood. That happens more often in some ethnic groups, such as African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Most people who don’t completely digest lactose have no symptoms and are entirely healthy, but some people do get those uncomfortable symptoms.
Complicating things, some people mistake the symptoms of intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, for lactose intolerance.
NIH recently convened a “consensus development” conference to review the scientific evidence and develop objective statements about treating lactose intolerance. The panel concluded that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to answer many questions about lactose intolerance, including how many people have it, whether it causes serious health effects or how these effects should be treated. More research will be needed to answer these questions.
If you think you or your children are lactose intolerant, studies suggest you may not need to completely eliminate milk or dairy products from your diet. There are several strategies you can try to ensure you get the nutrients you need. These include spreading your dairy intake throughout the day, combining it with other foods, taking nutritional supplements and choosing reduced-lactose or non-dairy foods rich in the nutrients found in dairy products.
How much calcium and vitamin D you need depends on your age and other factors. If you’re avoiding dairy products, talk to your doctor to make sure you meet your nutrient requirements. You can also check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for recommendations about dietary intake, including dairy or calcium-rich foods.