Not being able to stomach cow’s milk and other dairy products like yoghurt or some cheeses is a reality for many people in this part of the world. Lactose intolerance — a condition in which the body does not produce enough of the lactase enzyme that breaks down lactose, a natural sugar in dairy products — is most prevalent among those of East Asian descent. In some communities, up to 90 percent of adults may be genetically predisposed to it, causing mild to severe symptoms such as abdominal cramps, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhoea. By staying away from dairy products, lactose intolerant people can prevent these unpleasant symptoms. However, unless they eat or drink dairy-free substitutes, they would be missing out on a number of health benefits – even people who are not lactose intolerant may not be drinking enough milk every day!

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It Maintains Bone Density

Milk is an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus, which are necessary for the development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. These reduce the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures later in life.

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It Promotes Muscle Growth

The major proteins in milk are casein and whey. Both help in building lean muscle mass and reducing body fat.

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It Contains B Vitamins

Milk is rich in vitamin B12, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and niacin (vitamin B3), which aid the conversion of food into energy. Vitamin B12 is also needed for the formation of red blood cells and the normal functioning of the central nervous system.

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It Is Often Fortified

Other nutrients including vitamins A and D are usually added to milk. Vitamin A is key for good vision and boosts the immune system, while vitamin D improves the body’s ability to absorb calcium.

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It May Protect Against Chronic Diseases

In a 2016 journal article published in Food and Nutrition Research, researchers in Europe reviewed the scientific evidence from existing studies on the health effects of milk and dairy products. Their analysis found very few reported cases of adverse effects. In fact, the available evidence suggested that dairy intake is associated with a lower risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, as well as colon, bladder, gastric, and breast cancers.

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How Much Is Ideal?

Past national health surveys have consistently reported inadequate calcium intake among the population. According to the Health Promotion Board, the recommended dietary allowance for calcium is 800mg per day for people aged 19 to 50, while older adults should consume more (1,000mg) because aging can cause bone loss. This means including two to three daily servings of dairy products — no more than three 250ml glasses of milk each day — as part of a balanced diet.

One can drink milk anytime — it can be poured over breakfast cereal, consumed as an afternoon snack, or enjoyed warm at night — but we need not rely solely on milk to meet the recommended calcium intake. For example, replacing a glass of milk with a cup of yoghurt, or two slices of cheese, provides the same benefit.

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Consider These Alternatives

While drinking regular cow’s milk may be out of the question for lactose-intolerant people, there are alternative options. Lactose-free milk — made by adding lactase enzymes so that lactose is already broken down into simple sugars by the time it is consumed — allows drinkers to enjoy the goodness of dairy without experiencing any negative symptoms. However, its sweeter, more “artificial” taste tends to dampen consumer demand. Various kinds of non-dairy, plant-based milk are also available. One of the most popular types is soy milk, which comes closest to dairy milk in protein content, is low in saturated fat, and is also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Most other non-dairy options lack in some of these nutrients. Both almond milk and rice milk have no saturated fat but barely contain any protein, while coconut milk is high in saturated fat and has no protein. With the exception of almond milk, these other options are also not naturally rich in calcium.

There is also goat’s milk, albeit possessing a significant amount of lactose itself. If you are just mildly intolerant to lactose — or if cow’s milk bothers you, but cheese doesn’t — give this a try. Goat’s milk is lower in lactose than cow’s milk and has been shown to be easier to digest for children and adults with sensitive stomachs.

Consider yoghurt too, but look for those that state “live active cultures” or “probiotics” on the label. These good bugs are essential, since bacteria feed on sugar and will consume much of the lactose. Opt for full-fat yoghurt, as it has about 8.5g of lactose per serving, whereas its non-fat counterpart has 14g.

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