By Alexa Romagnolo
Milk, cheese, yogurt and the beloved ice cream make dairy a staple food group in today’s society. While pleading “not guilty” on trial for lactose intolerance, most can resonate with feeling bloated or gassy, or experiencing cramping after consuming a tall glass of milk or a generous serving of ice cream.
Experts suggest that there may be more to these feelings than one might suspect.
Recent studies point to the fact that less than 40 percent of adults are able to digest dairy properly, and therefore only this percentage of the population should be consuming it.
The ability to process dairy comes from having what is called “lactase persistence.” Lactase is the protein that breaks down lactose, the sugar in milk. Having lactase persistence then means maintaining the tool to digest lactose.
Why do some people have lactase persistence and others don’t? Stanford at The Tech gives us some insight into how this happens:
We all start out with the gene that produces lactase and therefore the ability to digest dairy — think babies drinking milk for proper development. Over time, our DNA builds a repressor that binds to this gene and shuts it off. These repressors are picky and only bind to specific sequences of genetic coding. Some people have slight variations in the coding of their DNA so that the repressor won’t want to stick to it, and this gene won’t be shut off. These genetic variations create lactase persistence.
“This genetic ability to digest milk…creates a strong selective advantage to those who can drink milk as adults, for only they can nutritionally benefit from the milk,” according to a study in the European Journal of Human Genetics.
Basically, the only people who can benefit from dairy are the roughly 40 percent of adults who can still produce lactase. To the other 60 percent, you may want to reevaluate your friendships with Ben and Jerry.
Does this apply to me?
The factor that separates those who can properly digest dairy from those who cannot is a difference in genetic coding. Does this mean you have to go get your DNA analyzed?
No. To the relief of your bank account, there is a much simpler way.
Simply paying attention to the way the body reacts to dairy can be an indicator of whether it has the ability to digest lactose or not. Take, for example, Reid Ferguson, a 20-year-old college student who has never been diagnosed as lactose intolerant.
“I would always have a bowl of cereal for breakfast (with 1% milk), but every day my stomach felt really heavy and I became gassy,” Ferguson says. “Eventually, I realized it was the milk that was doing it to me. I also started to notice the same feeling after eating ice cream.”
Taking note of his body’s reaction to dairy, Ferguson made some changes.
“After a few days of eliminating large amounts of dairy from my diet, my stomach has felt much lighter and more comfortable,” he says. “I also was no longer as gassy.”
Listening and responding to your body can solve the medical mystery of whether you should be consuming dairy or not.
What should I have instead?
If you have identified yourself as somewhat lactose intolerant, don’t fear! There are a plethora of delicious dairy-free options for the lactase deficient.
Almond Milk: This was a lifesaver for me. Regular milk hurt my stomach and rumors of negative health effects of soymilk bombarded my mind. I was in need of a milk replacement that had a good flavor and posed no threat to my health. Enter almond milk. This nutty beverage is a great substitute for regular milk. It works well in cereal, shakes, oatmeal, and more.
Coconut milk ice cream: Even if you lead a pretty healthy lifestyle, everyone needs a treat every now and then. For me, this treat was always ice cream. Recognizing that ice cream did not love me as much as I loved it, I decided to find something to replace it. Coconut milk ice cream was an easy swap, as it satisfied my sweet and creamy craving without leaving me in the fetal position afterward.
These dairy-free alternatives replace the main ways in which people consume milk products, making them a good place to start in the pursuit of a bloat, gas, and cramp-free life.