Which Dairy-Milk Alternatives Digest the Best?

Everyone’s got an opinion on dairy, and the science is dense and often conflicting.

From the ubiquity of the “Got Milk?” campaign to the recent rise in cow milk-alternatives, our beliefs are often tied to something personal – your mother always brought you fresh whole milk to drink during dinner, or milk used to give you flu-like symptoms and constipation and you didn’t connect the dots for many years, or you’re personally sickened by the dairy farm industry and the treatment of cattle…

Arguably, the people who have the most complicated relationship to dairy milk are those with digestive issues – IBS, leaky gut, and other common disorders. 

One of the most cited reasons to cut dairy from your diet is lactose intolerance, often affecting or affected by a digestive disorder, which can manifest in cramps, loose stools, backed up bowels, and even eczema. 

Around 30 million Americans are diagnosed as lactose intolerant, meaning they lack the lactase enzyme necessary to properly digest the sugar in milk – lactose. The estimation of how much of the global population lacks that enzyme is breathtaking – 65%.

So does dairy cause inflammation? 

Not necessarily – but so many of us aren’t equipped to digest it that it does cause inflammation, which as we know, is at the heart of most of Western chronic diseases, ranging from depression to autoimmune disorders. 

It’s hard to know where to turn, especially in a health-food grocery store, when seeking a dairy milk replacement. Some have been readily available for long enough that we know their pros and cons pretty well – like soy milk and almond milk. Others are newer, like oat milk.

Let’s break down how these dairy-milk alternatives can interact with your gut.

Goat’s Milk

During the age-old argument about whether or not humans should drink cow’s milk at all or just in the first few years of life or forever, goat’s milk often makes an appearance. It’s similar enough to cow’s milk that parents of young children recommend it to help make the transition from human breast milk without leaning on cow’s milk.

Similarly to cow’s milk, it’s a complete protein – but it’s lower in lactose. Some studies have shown that even those who cannot metabolize lactose may still benefit from it, to the degree that when undigested lactose ferments in the gut, it feeds bifidobacteria!

So if you’re lactose intolerant, but still want to experience dairy benefits, switching to a milk variety with a lower lactose content might be the ticket.

Lactose-Free Milk

Lactose-free milk, like Lactaid, is just milk with the lactose removed.

That means that you can still enjoy the benefits of milk without the disruption to your digestion. It’s also allowed on a low-FODMAP diet – fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates that aren’t absorbed well by the small intestines.

When repairing the gut, low-FODMAP diets are often recommended so that it can heal free of additional irritation. 

Hemp Milk

This type of milk – yes, from the same plant as marijuana (no, it doesn’t have that kind of effect) – mimics the texture and thickness of cow’s milk.

It’s also allowed in a low-FODMAP diet, and is packed full of anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, healthy fats, calcium, and iron. It is one of the fattier alternatives to cow’s milk available, but as they say…

It’s good fats. And healthy fats help to feed the good bacteria in our guts!

Kefir Milk

Fans of fermented foods out there will recognize kefir milk as one of the most beneficial things you can imbibe for your gut health. 

It’s usually made from cow, sheep, or goat milk, but sometimes coconut, and less gut-friendly soy and rice milk. It’s thicker than milk, and a little tangy, so it might not be the best substitute for say, cookies and milk, but otherwise – have at it!

Kefir milk is more than not harmful. Because of its status as fermented, it’s full of probiotic bacteria and yeast that your beneficial gut bacteria loves. 

Oat Milk

The latest craze in non-dairy milk, it has twice the dietary fiber of cow’s milk. That means that it supports digestive function twice as well!

This kind of milk is lactose-free, dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free, and usually gluten-free. It’s the hypoallergenic milk-replacement of your dreams.

However, be sure to check the back of the carton – if you say stabilizers such as gums, sugar alcohols, or artificial sweeteners (like xanthan gum or carrageenan), be wary. They can irritate the gut and cause gas or bloating.

Honorable Mention: Coconut Milk

Coconuts have wonderful full-body benefits, including for gut health. However, people find that substituting coconut milk for milk isn’t enough of a facsimile. It’s a lot thinner than regular milk, but if you can get past that…

It’s a good source of fiber and plenty of other vitamins. However, it may exacerbate IBS symptoms as some components of it can act as a laxative.

Whether you’re eliminating dairy for environmental, tolerance, or whole-body health reasons, there are a wealth of options to keep you and your digestive tract running optimally!

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