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Is Dairy the Cause of Your Tummy Troubles?

Can’t digest dairy? You’re not alone.

If I got paid for all the times clients have told me they have lactose intolerance, I’d be a very rich woman.

While lactose intolerance is a common problem (30-50 million Americans are affected), it’s not the only culprit in dairy digestive dilemmas. Milk protein allergy and hidden food sensitivities can also be at play here.

But instead of getting bogged down by all the technical stuff, I figured I’d walk you through some of the possible reasons you have a bad reaction to dairy and some tweaks you could make to help your body handle dairy products better.

Let’s start from the top and explore the question of the century: Is dairy the cause of your tummy troubles?

Can’t do milk?

For many people, milk causes bloating, gas, and diarrhea. The most obvious cause would be lactose intolerance. Lactose is the sugar naturally found in dairy products. When milk is fresh from the cow (aka raw and unpasteurized), it contains the enzyme to break lactose down, called lactase (Note the –ase). Once the milk is pasteurized, all the lactase is destroyed, but the lactose remains. Almost all milk in the US is pasteurized and therefore has no lactase enzyme remaining to assist your digestion.

For this reason, many people who supposedly “can’t do milk” digest raw milk just fine. Of course, if you do decide to try raw milk, you’d better source it from an über clear dairy operation where the cows are kept healthy, raised on pasture, and the dairy operators are strict about cleanliness. In California, you can buy it at select health food stores. In other states, it can be a little more difficult and in some cases, even illegal. That’s why certain farmers offer herd shares, so you can legally purchase unpasteurized milk directly from them.

Regardless of the pasteurized/unpasteurized issue, you’ll still want to seek out milk from grass-fed, pastured cows (try not to confuse pasteurized with pastured). Why? Because what the cow eats passes into the milk. Cows that eat corn and soy pass some of those proteins into their milk (even more-so than their meat, as I outlined in the grass-fed beef article) and a fair number of my food sensitivity clients who react to those two foods have reactions to dairy products from feedlot cows, but not grass-fed dairy.

You may also consider seeking out goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. They tend to have lower levels of lactose and easier-to-digest proteins compared to cow’s milk.

Can’t do yogurt?

For most with lactose intolerance, yogurt is a great alternative. During the fermentation process, lactic acid bacteria are added in. These little guys eat lactose like it’s their job (but really, that is their job), so the resulting yogurt is significantly lower in lactose than the milk it was made from.

However, if yogurt is upsetting your stomach, you can try a few things.

First, try a Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt has been strained to remove extra liquid, where most of the lactose was hiding out.

Second, you can try a full fat yogurt. Remember, milk in its natural form contains fat, and many people digest whole fat yogurt better than the low fat or non-fat stuff. Plus whole fat yogurt tastes divine (reason enough for me).

Third, check your yogurt for weird ingredients. Thickeners like guar gum, carrageenan, inulin fiber, or chicory root extract can all irritate your intestines and cause bloating you may be mislabeling as lactose intolerance. Caution! Beware of dairy-free yogurts. They are almost always loaded with the above additives.

Can’t do cheese?

Cheese is usually well tolerated by people with lactose issues because just like yogurt, the lactose is gobbled up by bacteria during the aging process. The longer the cheese ferments (think a 6 month cheddar or a good quality parmesan), the less lactose remains in the cheese. This means hard cheeses are lower in lactose than fresh, soft cheese.

Still having tummy troubles from cheese? Look for an aged cheese made from raw milk. Why? Because raw milk maintains all the enzymes originally found in the milk, so lactose and other hard to digest compounds are more efficiently broken down during the cheese-making process.

There is one caveat with aged cheese. The long fermentation process results in high levels of amines, such as tyramine, which can be a trigger for migraines, digestive upset, and other inflammatory reactions in sensitive individuals. In these folks, a “young” cheese like additive-free cottage cheese or queso fresco might be best tolerated. That’s why I love the confirmation of food and chemical sensitivities via lab testing when you’ve exhausted your list of usual suspects.

Can’t do butter?

Butter is essentially lactose-free, so people with lactose intolerance can usually digest butter. However, butter does have traces of milk proteins in it and if you are sensitive or allergic to milk protein, you can opt for ghee. Ghee is a type of clarified butter where the milk proteins have been filtered out. It’s commonly used in Indian cooking.

Either way, choose butter and ghee from grass-fed cows. It should be a golden-yellow color, which indicates high levels of vitamin A and fat-soluble vitamins. Grass-fed butter is also delicious, not bland.

Have you tried all of the above, but are still suffering?

Maybe it’s time to ditch dairy.

Keep in mind, there are a fair number of people who simply can’t digest dairy and choose to forgo milk products altogether. After all, milk is species-specific and produced for the purpose of nursing babies. At a certain point, those babies wean off of milk and move on to eating other foods. Plus, there are plenty of alternatives to milk, like this homemade coconut milk.

Some human populations have a genetic mutation that allows for better digestion of dairy products (think Swiss vs. Japanese), so do take heredity into consideration when making your decision.

You can argue until the cows come home if dairy is right or wrong to regularly consume, but in the end, it’s a personal decision. There’s no harm in a little self-experimentation here, as I outline in my 30 Days to a Happy Tummy, a free guide to overcoming digestive issues.

Now that you’re armed with the latest intel, tell me in the comments:

  • Do you eat dairy products?
  • If so, which ones digest the best for you?

Until next week,


Tummy Troubles Weighing You Down?

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.


Leave a comment
  1. Great post, Lily. I’m wondering — does ghee have the same benefits as butter (e.g., CLAs)? Also, do you know if/where it’s possible to get raw, pastured ghee?

    • Hi TT, Good questions. Ghee, by definition, is heated, so there’s no such thing as raw ghee. However, ghee undergoes a very gentle heating process (much like simmering), so it’s unlikely the fats are damaged, especially since butter is primarily saturated fats. It’s unknown how much CLA remains intact in ghee, because it’s a highly unsaturated fat and more susceptible to damage.

      By the way, this is a good quality grass-fed ghee.

  2. Unfortunately, I had to ditch dairy almost completely a while ago. I can tolerate in minute amounts from aged cheese and greek yogurt, and when I saw “minute” I mean like a tiny sprinkle of feta on a salad, or 1 tablespoon of greek yogurt as sour cream. I always know when I’ve had too much because I get bloated, my skin breaks out, and I have intense cravings! Your post should be very informative and helpful for those who are wondering if it is time to ditch the dairy…thanks Lily!

    • Hi Stacey,
      Yeah, I have quite a few clients who have skin issues related to dairy (and joint aches, sinus issues, headaches, etc…). That’s the beauty of an elimination diet, you can figure out which dairy products and in which amounts are best tolerated. Sometimes the best option is to treat dairy more like a condiment, rather than a dietary staple, just like you’ve done.

  3. I am a cheese-lover like you wouldn’t believe! Good point about the grass-fed for dairy…I never really thought about that, I usually just grab anything organic whenever possible. Frozen greek yogurt is my newest fave thing to find, so it looks like I’m on the right track!!

    • Yeah, grass-fed and organic are different (details in this article), but organic is better than nothing! It guarantees the cows didn’t receive growth hormones or antibiotics and that their feed was organically grown. Frozen Greek yogurt sounds like a yummy treat, Desiree!

  4. In the past few weeks I have successfully introduced butter, Greek yogurt, heavy whipping cream and ghee into my diet. I’m so excited to be able to eat these foods without experiencing a reaction. Goat cheese is next on the list!

    • Nice work, Marina! It feels so good to know which foods you can eat without symptoms, right?

  5. Hi
    I have a 12 month old who seems to have trouble with yogurt(I only give her a spoonful), it causes her to scream with what I think is tummy pain. I have given her lactose free yogurt which she has just fine, and I have also given her normal cheese which she eats just fine too, have given her cows milk but shes not drinking much of that so its hard to determine if that will cause her problems, I was wondering if you could help me at all

  6. Great article. I want to know butter or ghee is a healthy choice? As it is a saturated fat, and some studies show that it is harmful for heart health. Kindly provide me with correct information. Waiting for your reply. Thanks. 🙂

  7. Hi Lily,
    Any research regarding the benefits of oat milk versus cows milk?

  8. Hi Lily, curious on your thoughts of giving milk, regularly, to children once they turn one and/or when they have weaned off breast milk (after 1). Is this something you recommend? Do you do this for your own children?

  9. Hi Lily,
    Full fat dairy is not the same as Raw Dairy correct, because one can still have pasteurized full fat dairy? I’m trying to clarify the two. I’m currently listening to your Audiobook, “Real Food For Pregnancy” and know you support full fat dairy for pregnant women— but do you also support “Raw Dairy” for pregnant women? Thank you in advance!!

  10. I’m curious if you know anything about raw milk or raw milk cheese…?
    ….and a little off topic, but- What about kids and dairy? After being weaned, do kids need to drink milk?

  11. I have completely ditched all dairy from cow’s milk as it makes me quite sick to my stomach almost immediately. I can handle some amounts of hard cheese and can have a baked treat here or there with butter in it, but definitely not too much. I am able to eat both goat and sheep cheese which has very much opened my options. I haven’t tried ghee yet. If my problem is with the protein and not the lactose (I have tried lactose-free options before so I assume that isn’t the issue, although, I don’t really know. This is all just from trial and error. I haven’t done any testing.), is ghee still an option? I have been using a vegan butter alternative, but since I have started reading your book, I worry that I’m essentially just using a solid form of vegetable oil. I’m not worried about cooking as we already use coconut oil, olive oil, or animal fat; but am just trying to find an option for a condiment.

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