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There are many reasons why people consider giving up cow’s milk and related products, but lactose intolerance is usually at the top of the list. Defined as an inability to fully digest lactose (the sugar in milk), this condition causes a constellation of unpleasant gastrointestinal issues including bloating, gas, cramps, and diarrhea. And it’s surprisingly common: an estimated 30 million to 50 million American adults experience adverse reactions to dairy. Lactose intolerance appears to have a genetic component, so some populations have an even greater risk: 60–80 percent of African Americans, 50–80 percent of Hispanics, 95 percent of Asians, and 80–100 percent of Native Americans are likely to have adverse reactions to milk and other forms of dairy.
Lactose intolerance aside, there are other compelling reasons to decrease your intake of dairy—or avoid it altogether. Some studies suggest that people who consume high amounts of dairy have a greater risk of health problems compared with those who consume small or moderate amounts. For example, excess mucus production, leaky gut syndrome, and inflammatory skin conditions are thought by some to be exacerbated by dairy.
Researchers suspect that a variety of factors, including lactose, hormones, and even calcium, could be responsible. While the science is far from definitive, some research findings are cause for concern.
Dairy May Increase Your Risk of Cancer
Although studies are mixed, some research links high dairy consumption with an increased risk of certain cancers. In one study, women who consumed ¼–¹⁄³ cup of cow’s milk per day had a 30 percent increased risk of breast cancer. Consuming 1 cup per day increased the risk by 50 percent, while 2–3 cups per day were associated with an 80 percent increased risk. Other research has linked regular consumption of dairy products with increased prostate cancer risk. In one study, men who drank two or more glasses of milk a day were almost twice as likely to develop advanced prostate cancer as those who drank no milk.
It May Not Be a Magic Bullet for Strong Bones
While milk’s main claim to fame is its high calcium content—and, thus, its theoretical ability to protect against osteoporosis—some research suggests that dairy products offer little benefit for bones and don’t reduce the risk of fractures. In one study of more than 96,000 people, men who consumed the most milk as teenagers had a higher rate of bone fractures as adults. Other studies have shown no link between calcium intake and risk of fracture in women or men. And in one study, women who drank two and a half or more glasses of milk per day had a higher risk of fractures than those who drank less than one glass a day.
You Can Get Calcium from Non-Dairy Foods
If you’re ditching dairy, some things to consider. First, while milk, cheese, and other dairy products are a convenient and abundant source of calcium, protein, and vitamin D, they’re not the only way to get these and other important nutrients. Collard greens, kale, broccoli, and sesame seeds are good sources of calcium, and they’re high in magnesium, vitamin K, and other nutrients that are critical for bone health (as well as protective antioxidants). And, let’s face it, there are plenty of other easy ways to include ample protein in your diet, both animal and plant-based.
Vitamin D Is Added to Other Foods Too
As for vitamin D, it doesn’t naturally occur in dairy products anyway. In the United States, most processed milk is fortified with added vitamin D. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D (though fatty fish is an excellent source), but other fortified foods, such as orange juice and plant-based milks, can help you get your D, as can vitamin D supplements.
It’s Easy to Make Your Own Dairy-Free Milk & Cheese
If you’re on a dairy-free diet, choose the cleanest alternatives. Look for those made with organic nuts, seeds, or grains, with no added sugar or preservatives. For a squeaky-clean option, make your own. Almond, hazelnut, oat, or quinoa milks are easy to make. Sweeten them with dates or maple syrup instead of sugar, and add natural flavorings such as cardamom, cinnamon, or pure vanilla extract. Or experiment with fermented pumpkin seed, cashew, or hemp cheese. Check out “6 Tips for Making Vegan Cheese.” You can also find plenty of delicious ideas in Artisan Vegan Cheese by Miyoko Schinner or Super Easy Vegan Cheese Cookbook by Janice Buckingham.