A new survey has found that 1 in 6 Australians are avoiding milk and dairy products in their diet – and a worrying percentage may be doing it for the wrong reasons.

Milk is an important source of calcium in our diets.

Milk is an important source of calcium in our diets.

We call it ‘dietary self-avoidance’, but ‘Dr Google’ may be a more fitting term. We are of course referring to the habit of people excluding food groups from their diet in response to perceived symptoms without first seeking advice from a medical professional.

We’ve seen similar habits from Australians with other food groups – you might remember our findings about wheat avoidance. But these latest survey results are of particular concern given the potential health impacts, particularly for women.  

Dairy foods are rich in a range of nutrients and important for all of us, but lifetime intake of dairy food is especially important for women owing to their higher rate of osteoporosis later in life.

However, the study of 1184 Australian adults (undertaken with the University of Adelaide) has found that 1 in 6 are choosing to avoid milk and dairy foods.  And around three quarters of them are doing so without medical evidence.

The survey found that the vast majority – 74% – of dairy avoiders are making this choice to relieve adverse gastrointestinal symptoms such as cramps, bloating or wind. Far fewer participants cited not liking the taste or because they thought it’s fattening.

But most worrying was the revelation that women are more likely to avoid milk and other dairy foods than men. More than three quarters of osteoporosis sufferers are women, and removing dairy foods – which have a high level of calcium, which is essential for bone growth and strength – puts them further at risk.

But most worrying was the revelation that women are more likely to avoid milk and other dairy foods than men. More than three quarters of osteoporosis sufferers are women, and removing dairy foods – which have a high level of calcium, which is essential for bone growth and strength – puts them further at risk.

In fact, Osteoporosis Australia recommend 3 serves of dairy food per day in a normal adult diet eg: glass of milk (250 ml), tub of yoghurt (200 g), or a slice of cheese (40 g).

We also found that younger adults and people who tend to worry about illness or becoming ill were also more likely to restrict this food group.

An important finding is that only approximately a quarter of the symptomatic avoiders reported having a formal diagnosis that required them to avoid dairy. Some of these formal diagnoses included lactose intolerance, high cholesterol, asthma, allergy and diabetes. It is interesting that the decision to avoid some or all dairy foods was found to rely substantially on information or advice sourced from outside mainstream medical practice such as the internet, friends or alternative practitioners, rather than consulting a doctor for a medically-based diagnosis.

About three quarters of the people who reported avoiding dairy foods due to specific symptoms did not avoid all dairy foods – most commonly avoided foods for people who only avoided some dairy foods were milk, cheese and cream.

These results follow the team’s similar findings on wheat avoidance, which showed around ten times more Australians than those diagnosed with coeliac disease are avoiding wheat-based foods. This study reveals that even more people are avoiding dairy products and, in fact, that around one third of the respondents avoiding dairy foods are also avoiding wheat-based foods.

The self-prescribed nature of dairy (and wheat) avoidance presents us with questions regarding the accuracy of self-diagnosis and the potential for misattribution of symptoms. Most significantly, the findings are further evidence of a widespread tendency of people to seek and exercise control over their health by eliminating dietary factors without medical evidence or oversight.

The self-prescribed nature of dairy (and wheat) avoidance presents us with questions regarding the accuracy of self-diagnosis and the potential for misattribution of symptoms. Most significantly, the findings are further evidence of a widespread tendency of people to seek and exercise control over their health by eliminating dietary factors without medical evidence or oversight. However, regardless of whether or not individuals are correct in identifying dairy products as the cause of their symptoms, we face the prospect of a health-motivated reduction in dairy consumption.

Without replacement with other foods that are appropriately nutritious, the risk increases for reduced consumption of essential nutrients, including calcium, protein, iodine, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and zinc. Avoiding dairy (and wheat) to alleviate symptoms should be weighed against the consequences of healthy levels of consumption of important food groups. Given the apparent scale of the avoidance behaviour, these consequences can be significant for society in the long term.

To find out more about the survey, visit our website. 

Updated 2/06/2016 – 

This survey has been co-funded by CSIRO and The Grains Research and Development Corporation. The Grains Research and Development Corporation had no involvement in the study, data collection, or publication. 

The Australian Dietary Guidelines is the ultimate guide of what we should be eating, and they state that so long as we are all eating either enough dairy foods or dairy alternatives, our calcium intake should be sufficient. 

Canned fish including salmon and sardines have bones that are rich in calcium, and some vegetables like broccoli, bok choy, and silverbeet have calcium in them. Tofu and soy products with added calcium are also good sources: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/…/milk-yoghurt-cheese…

54 comments

  1. I avoid wheat and dairy because it makes me bloated, tired, constipated, sore, depressed and anxious. There is a clear interaction between gut health and cognitive function, that conventional medicine is only starting to investigate.

    In my experience, doctors usually attempt to treat only the symptoms, especially in cases where medicine does not yet recognise a condition. I was on and off dairy/wheat for years before I did, in fact, consult a doctor. I told him my symptoms and also that I thought it happens after eating dairy or wheat, and he said something like, “It’s clearly not as severe as coelliac or lactose allergy, but you have to take responsibility for your own health. If you think something is hurting you, stop doing it.” So I avoid these now.

    The doctor just confirmed what I already knew. It’s really just common sense in that respect. If something hurts you, stop doing it. Wheat and dairy are delicious, and if people are avoiding these, they’ve probably got a very good reason.

    This article takes the wrong tack in terms of questioning this. If modern medicine does not yet recognise wheat/dairy sensitivity that isn’t coeliac/lactose intolerance, then you can’t expect people to continue hurting themselves until modern medicine catches up.

    The symptoms are not imaginary. The relief from stopping them is not imaginary. Don’t imply that people should start eating dairy/wheat again just because you are of the opinion that they should have consulted a doctor before stopping it.

    1. Very well said!

  2. where’s the evidence to support all these assertions? whats the incidence of these issues in societies where dairy is not part of their culture?

    1. Read The China Study. The incidence of osteoporosis is lower in societies that don’t have a high dairy intake.

  3. Why do herbivores not have a calcium deficiency when all they eat is grass?

    As a former CSIRO scientist, this article is an embarrassment. And a funded one as well.

    Osteoporosis is related to protein intake & Vitamin D. Any healthy person in the Western world is not suffering calcium deficiency – there is plenty of calcium in green leafy greens. Most people with hypocalcemia have thyroid issues. Ingesting more calcium will not cure osteoporosis, but it will increase you risk of a heart attack,

    1. Ummm, herbivores only eat grass? Don’t you mean ungulates? Ungulates have four stomachs because their diet is so lacking in nutrition they need to try to break it down multiple times. As for so-called vegetarians, I don’t know about all, but most predominantly herbivorous birds (such as honeyeaters, including lorikeets) will eat meat if they van get it. It is very common for them to catch and eat insects.

  4. Dairy milk is for baby cows, too rich for human consumption. This article is obviously supported by the dairy industry who are in a panic. They don’t even look after their suppliers (farmer’s) so why trust them. The Osteoporosis foundation is also a farce, probably getting funding from the dairy industry. Too much calcium can cause osteoporosis especially when it is full of fat and protein. Studies confirm that cancer cells will grow when given animal protein but not vegetable protein. Have some tahini with some leafy greens.

    1. So why do adult humans produce lactase, which is there to digest the lactose in milk?

      1. Only a minority of ethnies produce lactase to adulthood.

  5. Has no-one at CSIRO read “The China Study”? Data clearly show a positive correlation between animal protein intake (which includes dairy) and occurrence of osteoporosis. In other words, eating meat and dairy is linked to osteoporosis – it doesn’t prevent it at all. Animal protein makes the body more acidic – the body responds be extracting calcium from its bones, leading to osteoporosis. Giving up milk is the first step top avoiding osteoporosis, as long as you get calcium from somewhere else – vegetables, nuts, seeds contain plenty of calcium for the body, as long as you don’t eat too much animal protein.

    CSIRO needs to stop acting as an advocate for industry (in this case the dairy industry) and start looking at the whole scientific picture.

What do you think?

We love hearing from you, but we have a few guidelines.