The Truth About Dairy Sensitivity

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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In a world where 75% of the population is lactose intolerant, dealing with dairy can be downright confusing. It’s a great source of calcium and helps promote good bone health, but many experts say dairy products are harmful and should be avoided. Plus, everyone digests dairy differently. How do you know if the way your digestive tract handles dairy is normal or not? Let’s explore what dairy sensitivity really means. 

Milk Allergy or Dairy Sensitivity?

Sometimes it can be difficult to know if you’re allergic to dairy or just have a sensitivity or intolerance. True food allergies cause a reaction in your immune system that affects a variety of organs in your body. If you have a milk allergy, you will experience mild symptoms like a rash, hives, itching or swelling or severe symptoms like difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. Food allergies can be potentially fatal, so if you have a milk allergy you need to avoid dairy completely.

A dairy sensitivity, also known as lactose intolerance, involves your digestive system instead of your immune system. Symptoms can still range from mild to severe, but usually include nausea, cramps, bloating and gas. Lactose intolerance can be extremely uncomfortable but it’s not life threatening.

Lactose intolerance means your body doesn’t have enough of the enzyme lactase to break down the sugar in dairy called lactose. Many people believe that when we reach around age 2 and stop being breastfed, our bodies quit producing lactase which can lead to a dairy sensitivity as adults.

How to Find Out for Sure

If you’re still not convinced that your tummy troubles are caused by dairy sensitivity, you can see your doctor for a hydrogen breath test. With this test, patients drink 25 grams of lactose and their breath is measured over a few hours. If lactose isn’t processed, then it will pass into the colon and ferment, causing the hydrogen level of your breath to rise. High hydrogen means you’re lactose intolerant.

A simple, but slower, way to find out is to stop eating lactose-containing foods and see if your symptoms go away. Keeping a food diary is helpful so if you do eat dairy, you can record how it makes you feel. Then you can can pinpoint and cut out the foods that upset your stomach the most.

So You’re Sensitive, Now What?

Not every stomach is the same and it may take some time to figure out what amount of dairy your sensitive system can tolerate. Here are some tips to keep lactose intolerance in check.

  • Avoid dairy products that are high in lactose: milk, cream cheese, ice cream, sour cream, cottage cheese and soft cheeses.

  • Yogurt contains bacteria that breaks down lactose, so some yogurts might feel okay to your stomach.

  • Try eating dairy with other foods. But be careful not to overload on dairy by combining dairy with foods that were made with milk, like cookies or pancakes.

  • Hard cheeses have less lactose so stick with classics like mozzarella, parmesan, asiago and manchego.

  • See if lactose-free dairy products like Lactaid can satisfy your milk tooth without upsetting your stomach.

  • Try different portions. People with dairy sensitivity can often tolerate small amounts of dairy, but you’ll need to experiment to see how much is too much.

  • Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D. If you’re limiting dairy, you can get these nutrients from broccoli, oranges, pinto beans, spinach, eggs, liver and other fresh foods. You may also want to add supplements to your diet.

  • If you can’t quit dairy, use over-the-counter lactase enzyme tablets or drops to help you digest it better.

Look Out for Hidden Dairy

Skipping out on milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products will surely soothe your dairy sensitivity. But beware of processed foods that may contain milk and lactose. Here are some common culprits:

  • Breakfast cereals

  • Soups

  • Baby foods

  • Processed meats

  • Sauces and gravies

  • Salad dressings

  • Baked goods

  • Puddings and custards

  • Chocolate and candy

  • Fried foods

  • Potato chips

Still Struggling?

When you stop eating dairy you may initially feel worse and have a “dairy hangover” for your first dairy-free week. Stick with your elimination diet for another week or two to see real results. If you still have a hard time diagnosing your digestive problem or managing your dairy and vitamin intake, talk with your doctor or a dietician who can help you create a balanced diet that will feel good to your dairy sensitive body.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 8
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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