This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Give Up Dairy

In some parts of the world, dairy products were once the go-to for strong bones and overall "good health", but recent years has seen growing skepticism about dairy consumption and awareness about lactose intolerance has, leading some people to consider giving up dairy altogether. Case in point—the growing list of milk alternatives at your local coffee shop.

Nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian Hollie James says that while dairy can get a bad rap, it's not inherently "bad" for human health.

"Dairy can definitely have its place in a balanced diet," she says. "Dairy a nutritious source of protein, calcium, B vitamins, vitamins A and D, as well as minerals, like potassium."

According to Hollie, populations with a long history of dairy intake are less likely to be lactose intolerant, while those without a history of dairy intake—such as some in some Asian and African countries—are more likely to be lactose intolerant. Ultimately, she says, if dairy products tend to affect you negatively, it's important to remember that it's probably not dairy products overall but rather the ones with high levels of lactose.

"It's actually a common misconception that being lactose intolerant means you can't have dairy," she says. "There are of course lactose-free dairy products, but also naturally lactose free options, like hard cheeses. If someone is lactose intolerant, they produce less of the enzyme required to break lactose down, lactase, though you still produce small amounts. The amount of lactose one individual can tolerate compared to another will vary too- an intolerance does not often require complete avoidance."

Another common area of concern when it comes to dairy intake is its saturated fat content and how it affects heart heath. Hollie says that recent research has suggested that dairy actually has neutral to positive effects on heart health, meaning: "Dairy does not seem to increase risk of heart disease in healthy populations." Likewise, Hollie says she is asked about the link between dairy and cancer, and while there is some mixed evidence, overall there is no scientific consensus that dairy consumption comes with an increased risk of cancer.

So, unless you are someone with possible dairy-related allergies, or have decided to quit dairy for environmental or ethical reasons, the health benefits alone may not be enough of a reason to go cold turkey. Why? The effects of dairy are just so different for everyone, Hollie says.

"I just wouldn't remove it due to misinformation or fear," she tells us. "But if you do choose to not have dairy, or you are unable to have dairy, it's important to be aware of replacing the nutrients you remove." 

So, be sure to address any deficiencies that might be caused by a suddenly dairy-free diet, and give yourself some time to get used to the taste of your new coffee order, and then assess any changes in your health and wellbeing. From clearer skin to reduced bloating, here is what might happen to your body when you give up dairy.

The good

While everybody, and every body, is different, there are some positive changes that can happen after giving up dairy—here they are.

Your skin could improve: You've heard of "dairy skin", and maybe you've even experienced it yourself. Some people are more prone to dairy-related breakouts, says dietitian Geraldine Georgeou. This is because acne and pimples often indicate underlying insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction, which can get worse with dairy intake. Fellow dietitian Hollie James agrees that there is evidence that dairy intake may be associated with skin concerns, but adds that there is no research that suggests the link is there for everyone. 

You might bloat less: Most people experience bloating after consuming dairy because they lack the necessary enzyme (lactase) required to properly digest lactose. This means that dairy products tend to hang around in the gut way longer than they should, where they feed bacteria and cause excess gas, making you bloated and uncomfortable. Cutting out dairy—or reducing your intake—can reduce bloating and aid digestive health.

You may get fewer headaches: Aged cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Camembert) contain an amino acid called tyramine, which can only be broken down by an enzyme called monoamine oxidases—an enzyme that most people lack. As a result, tyramine builds up in the bloodstream and increases blood pressure, and can also trigger the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine. The result for an unlucky few? Splitting headaches after every helping from the cheese board. So, if you are someone who experiences regular headaches or migraines, you may want to test reducing your dairy intake and assessing any improvements that follow.

You might have more energy: As long as you are replacing calcium-rich dairy products with other calcium-rich foods—such as spinach and kale—you may see a boost in energy. The vitamins in these foods not only deliver the calcium you need but also help to alkalise the body and decrease inflammation, leaving you more energised.

Your mood may improve: The most likely way for mood to improve after the removal of dairy from your diet would be if dairy was causing unpleasant symptoms that caused your mood to decline. So, if you suspect that dairy intake is affecting your mood, you may find that reducing or removing it can cause your mood to improve

The bad

If you've been living off a dairy-rich diet for a while now, there are some important factors to keep in mind before you quit. Dairy products contain nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, as well as bacterias and probiotics that help maintain good gut health. Here are some of the negative effects that giving up dairy can bring on, and some suggestions on how to address sudden deficiencies.

You may experience withdrawals: Any dramatic change in diet is bound to bring on withdrawal symptoms, so keep this in mind if you decide to cut dairy out entirely. Depending on how much dairy you were consuming, you may find that you feel more tired than usual or having trouble sleeping. It's important to replace the energy and nutrients you got from dairy products with something. Failure to do so can lead to symptoms like fatigue and hunger, says nutritionist Hollie James.

Your gut health might suffer: Some dairy products like yoghurt and Kefir contain those good bacterias and probiotics that are required for a healthy gut, so be sure to seek out dairy-free options or speak to a doctor about probiotic tablets. "Find dairy-free fermented products, like alternative yoghurts (with live probiotics), kimchi and sauerkraut," Hollie says. "The best thing we can do for gut health is have a diverse range of plant foods to feed the existing bacteria."

Your immune system might weaken: Cutting dairy products out of your diet can lead to vitamin deficiencies, which can lead to a weakened immune system. Be sure to seek out foods that support the immune system and eat a diverse diet.

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

For more from Hollie, follow her at @holliejamesdietitian.

Enjoyed this? We asked a nutrition expert to explain how dairy can affect our skin.

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