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Unintended Consequences of Dairy Avoidance

By Steve Flint, SDA intern (reviewed by Ali Patterson AccSD) - 11/12/2014

How many of us can say that we know a friend or family member who has (at least at some point) eliminated dairy from their diet? Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the Dairy Australia scientific symposium entitled ‘Drivers and unintended consequences of dairy and wheat avoidance’. Considering this very topical (and often controversial) issue, it was interesting to hear from those at the forefront of current research, and needless to say I walked away with plenty of food for thought!

 

So, why are people choosing to avoid dairy?

While some people need to exclude dairy because of a diagnosed allergy, other common reasons given for avoiding dairy include intolerance (specifically lactose intolerance), gastrointestinal upset, weight management or a perception that dairy foods are bad for health.

It’s not uncommon for popular diets to exclude whole food groups, but it’s important to recognise the long term health implications of this decision.

At the symposium, keynote speaker Professor Connie Weaver discussed the nutritional consequences of avoiding dairy - most notably, how the absence of sufficient calcium intake impacts our bone health.

Although most Australians consume dairy foods, over 80% of us are missing out on the recommended serves suggested in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. One of the reasons people may be limiting their intake of dairy foods is due to lactose intolerance – whether or not this has been professionally diagnosed. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can be confused with other medical problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), so it is best to have this assessed by a health professional.

Even with lactose intolerance, most people are still able to consume dairy foods in small amounts across the day without having any significant symptoms. For example, up to 250ml of milk may be well tolerated when consumed throughout the day with other foods and despite being a dairy food, hard cheese is naturally low in lactose. There is also an abundance of lactose free products now available in supermarkets and lactose-digesting tablets are available at pharmacists, ensuring that you can still experience all the benefits dairy has to offer despite limiting your lactose intake.

What are you missing out on if you avoid dairy foods?

The word calcium is synonymous with milk, and for good reason. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body and is imperative for bone and teeth structure, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and blood clotting amongst others. Milk, cheese and yogurt are the top three sources of calcium in the Australian diet and account for over 30% of our daily calcium intake. Other foods don’t provide nearly as much calcium - you would need to consume 4.5 serves of broccoli or 8 cups of spinach to achieve the equivalent absorbable amount of calcium as found in one glass of milk! 

Not only do dairy foods provide calcium, they are also an excellent source of protein (containing all the essential amino acids), carbohydrate, vitamin A and B12, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. Dairy foods are nutrient dense and extremely important for our bodies in more ways than one.

The benefits of dairy foods go beyond bone health - based on 55,000 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific research, the Australian Dietary Guidelines show the consumption of dairy foods are linked to a reduced risk of osteoporosis as well as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

 

What are the recommended serves from the dairy food group per day?

Boys

Age (years)

Serves per day

2-3

4-8

2

9-11

12-13

14-18

Girls

2-3

4-8

9-11

3

12-13

14-18

 

 

 

Men

Age (years)

Serves per day

19-50

51-70

Over 70

Women

Pregnant and breastfeeding

19-50 years

51-70 years

4

Over 70 years

4

 

* Adapted from the Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013)

 

What is a serve of milk, yoghurt or cheese?

 

1 cup (250ml) milk

¾ cup (200g) yoghurt

2 slices (40g) hard cheese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nutritional consequences of dairy avoidance

Potential long-term health implications associated with avoidance of dairy may arise due to the absence of the excellent source of protein, calcium, riboflavin and other nutrients found in dairy foods. A reduced calcium intake during critical adolescent growth periods can increase the risk of osteoporosis later in life due to a reduction in the peak bone mass achieved during youth. Professor Weaver explained that a 10% increase in peak bone mass (achieved largely during adolescence) may delay osteoporosis by 13 years and decrease fracture risk by 50% highlighting how important adequate calcium intake is during this period.

While the benefits of calcium are vast, its ability to be effectively absorbed by the body requires adequate vitamin D. With 1 in 4 Australians being vitamin D deficient, it is even more important that sufficient intake of calcium is achieved through dietary intake. If you live in the southern states of Australia, spend most of your day indoors or covered up in clothing that prevents sun reaching your skin or have dark skin it could be worth having your vitamin D levels checked with your local GP and supplemented if required.

 

Take home message

 

Dairy foods are nutrient dense and contribute essential vitamins and minerals with milk being the biggest source of calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin (vitamin B2), iodine, phosphorus and potassium in the Australian diet. Australians should be aiming to meet their recommended daily serves from the dairy food group to enjoy the full range of health benefits they offer.

Dairy foods also contain the right balance of nutrients to meet sports nutrition goals - If you wish to know more about how to meet your recommended serves of dairy per day or tap into their abilities to help you refuel, rehydrate and repair muscles, contact an Accredited Sports Dietitian.

 

 

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