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Lactose Intolerance: Nutritionists Reveal Alternatives To Dairy

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As digestive problems go, being lactose intolerant is fairly common. But what causes it?

"Lactose intolerance," says nutritionist Karen Poole, "is caused when the body cannot process the lactose found in cows milk into simple sugars that it can then absorb and use."

Your body produces an enzyme called lactase which is meant to breakdown the lactose, but if there isn't enough, the lactose sits in your body and ferments, causing flatulence, bloating and possibly diarrhoea. As you get older too, you may find that you're less able to cope with dairy because the body tends to produce less lactase.

If you've eaten dairy all your life, this can be fairly traumatic news. More importantly, says British Dietetic Association spokesperson Lucy Jones, you still need to make sure you're getting the necessary vitamins.

"Dairy is an important part of our diet, providing protein, calcium, vitamins B2 and B12, magnesium and even iodine. It is important that any replacement continues to provide these nutrients in our diets. These nutrients are not only important for bones but also blood pressure and energy levels."

There is also good news for people who have just been told they have a food intolerance to dairy.

Lucy says: "The first thing to point out is that lactose intolerance is not an allergy. People will have a certain tolerance point, meaning they can manage a little, but maybe not a whole glass of milk.

"Most people with a lactose intolerance do not need to exclude all dairy in pre-made foods as these typically contain small amounts of lactose and do not cause symptoms. This means that many people with a lactose intolerance could still eat a small yoghurt for example."

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If you do want to take steps towards a dairy-free existence, The Food Doctor nutritionist Alice Mackintosh says: "Though there isn’t a lot of specific research that suggests dairy is ‘bad’ for us, many people find they generally feel better not over doing it. Many of my female clients also give up diary if they have hormonal imbalances (such as PCOS, endometriosis, PMS or problem skin) owing to the slightly elevated hormone levels in milk."

Soya is the most well-known alternative for dairy free diets. For good reason, too. Karen says: "Soy also presents natural antioxidants that can help the efficiency of each body system and is a good source of protein that is naturally low in fat and sugar. Fermented soy yoghurt can help to restore the gut flora and help the development of good bacteria that will play a vital role in the efficient digestion and absorption of all the food we eat."

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Fussy Eater or Food Intolerance?

All the experts agree that when choosing soy to pick a calcium-enriched brand.

soy milk

Soy milk

However, not everyone is a fan of the taste of soy.

"A lot of people find that they struggle with the taste of these milk alternatives at first," says Alice, "because they are used to the taste of dairy. After two-three weeks however I often find my clients tend to get used to it and actually end up preferring them to dairy products."

Alice recommends brown rice milk or oat meal by Rude Health. "Both are still sugar free but has a naturally sweeter taste."

Nut milks are also growing in popularity. Emily Maguire, nutritionist and HuffPost UK blogger says: "The two major substitutes which I would recommend are that of unsweetened almond or hazelnut and coconut milk. Seed milks are good for those who cannot tolerate milk within their diet however, as they are seeds, it does mean that they are high in the polyunsaturated fats known as omega 6s (n-6).

roasted almonds

"Many people can be put off consuming coconut based products as they believe they are higher in fat. However, the fats contained within coconuts are exceptionally good for the body's overall health. Make sure when selecting coconut milks, that you choose ones without any added sugar."

Alternative milks also have other health benefits, such as added fibre, says Karen. She also says that it's worth supplementing your diet with other minerals. She adds: "A sensible idea would be to take a good daily multivitamin and make sure your diet includes a wide range of dark leafy vegetables, oily fish with bones such as sardines or pilchards and pumpkin,sunflower, sesame and wholegrains."

Here is a list of non-dairy options from Alice:

  • Koko Dairy Free (and sugar free) - made from coconut milk & is fortified to support bone health.
  • Blue Diamond Almond Milk (Unsweetened) – free from sat fat and with added calcium and vitamin E, almonds are good for the skin and high in protein.
  • Good Hemp (milk made from hempseeds) – this is slightly sweetened with grape juice, but tastes lovely and is a great source of healthy omega 3 fats. Ideal for children if they are lactose intolerant.
  • Coyo Yoghurt – delicious, dairy free and has additional probiotics for healthy digestive function. Also has no added sugar and is sweetened instead with xylitol, a safer sweetener.
  • Homemade Butter – use coconut butter and olive oil, the additional omega’s ensure healthy brain development and the coconut butter does not taste of coconut ensuring a spread that’s perfect for your toast in the morning.