Milk, yogurt and other dairy products are an excellent source of calcium and protein, but they make some portions of the population sick. A milk allergy is an immune reaction to one or more of the many proteins found in dairy products. Even the smallest amounts of milk can cause bloating, diarrhea, constipation, skin irritation, headache, joint pain and respiratory symptoms in people with an allergy. Dairy intolerance has many similar symptoms, but is nonimmune and refers to the inability to digest dairy sugar, or lactose.
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Diet by Diagnosis
People with a milk intolerance have many more options than those with a milk allergy since most stores carry milk, yogurt and cheese devoid of lactose. A true milk allergy most commonly affects infants and young children with an immature gut, according to the University of Chicago Medicine website. Talk to your doctor if you think you have a dairy allergy or intolerance to ensure you're getting enough nutrients.
If you are on a strict dairy-free diet, you'll have to shop smart. You may see packaged items with prominent "dairy-free" and "nondairy" labels, but don't buy them too quickly. Most nondairy foods are free of milk, butter and cream but may contain milk proteins. Some manufacturers use a dairy-free label when the item is only lactose-free. Kosher foods -- labeled "parve" -- are usually truly dairy-free, but you should still check the nutrition facts label and look for proteins including casein.
Foods to Eat
Calcium is the main nutrient you could miss by eating dairy-free, but the mineral is found in many nondairy foods including sardines, fortified juice, tofu, canned salmon, dark greens, broccoli and bread. Drink a glass of fortified orange juice for breakfast, make a sandwich on whole-wheat bread for lunch and make a salad of dark, leafy greens topped with canned salmon for dinner. Protein is another nutrient you might miss, but most people have no trouble getting protein from sources including meat, nuts and beans.
Living dairy-free can be tricky, but you'll quickly learn substitutions. You'll have to avoid most store-bought breads, crackers and cereal, but French bread, saltine crackers and bagels are usually safe. Plain oatmeal, cream of wheat, rice and potatoes are all fair game. Try eating hot cereal with a nondairy substitute such as almond or coconut milk. Most plain meat, fish and poultry is safe, but be wary of products with breading as the breading may contain milk. All fresh fruits and vegetables are dairy-free and packed with nutrients. Avoid produce prepared with sauces.