Dairy often gets a bad rap. Almost everyone goes through a period of blaming li'l ol' dairy for their problems (bad skin, weight gain, bloating headaches, the lot). So, they quit dairy. Mostly, without exploring the real reason for their discomfort or ailment.
During a bad skin stint, I considered ending my comfortable relationship with dairy (it was either that or gluten, the other devil). I spoke to people who had successfully cut out dairy and then people who ditched it for a time, returned and felt worse. I didn't want my decision to be an irrational one, or one that would then cause further harm when I decided to go back. So, I reached out to nutritionist Stephanie Wearne of Body Good Food to ask some hard-hitting questions about dairy — the often-misunderstood food group.
For anyone with a diagnosed dairy intolerance — yep — dairy is the damn devil and consumption needs to be managed. But for anyone who is self-diagnosing their intolerance, without any evidence to support, well, that's unjustified.
Stephanie recognises dairy is a fantastic source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and cultures. Avoiding dairy unnecessarily means you're missing out on all the good things it has to offer. In a perfect world, cutting out dairy isn't bad, provided you are getting the nutrients you're missing through a varied nutritionally-focused diet. "If you are reading this and realise you have been cutting out dairy just because you think it is better for you, make sure you research the alternatives you are using because often the almond milk your local café uses or the one that tastes best in your smoothies is full of additives and preservatives and perhaps a full-fat milk would be a more nutritious option," says Stephanie.
"With all dairy sources it is important to look at the quality of the food. The most nutritious ones will be the full-fat varieties, which when eaten in moderation will not overdo your energy intake. It is also important to opt for organic or at least grass-fed products and ones with no additives to ensure you are only ingesting the nutrients and nothing else."
We've been through this before, elimination diets can be ineffective when undertaken without medical supervision and nixing dairy from your meals without sound medical reasoning is the same. Just because your friend, that Kardashian is doing it doesn't make it OK for you.
Every single body responds differently to food.
"Even if you have tried cutting out dairy before and felt better, you need to be 100 percent certain it was not due to another factor – for example, did you also cut out processed food, fried food and sugar at the same time?" asks Stephanie. "Every individual is unique and although there are some situations where cutting out dairy can be beneficial, for most of us it is a highly nutritious food that should be included in our diet in moderation."
So, is it true avoiding dairy makes you forever intolerant when you eventually try to reintroduce it?
There's no blanket rule here, but the key to a successful reintroduction is the slowly-slowly approach. "Our microbiome (a mini ecosystem of bacteria within our gastrointestinal tract) is extremely reactive and as they say, you are what you eat," says Stephanie. "The balance of bacteria present in our GI tract is determined by the foods we eat so the more variety we have, the better balanced and broader our strains of bacteria. If you cut something out of your diet, your bacteria will shift accordingly. It is not expected that you will react to dairy if you introduce it again, but this may occur for some people." This is why it's important to reintroduce foods slowly after any elimination process. If you react a bit, you may need to persist a few times before your bacteria shift again to be able to fully to digest the particular food in question.
To put it simply, dairy doesn't need to be feared. Instead of rejecting dairy in all its delicious forms, aim to make smarter dairy choices and seek medical advice before quitting it all together.