If You Go Gluten Free, Should You Be Dairy Free Too?

If you’re celiac, should you go dairy free?

The thought of eliminating your favorite cheese along with your favorite gluten-filled crackers may seem daunting and incredibly unfair.  But if you are celiac, there are reasons to consider taking a vacation from dairy.

Dairy is an excellent source of protein, but if your gut is sensitive to dairy products, this can trigger inflammation.  Because of celiac disease (CD), your body is already in an inflamed state, and excess inflammation makes the healing process more difficult.  Therefore keeping inflammation at bay is a key factor for successfully healing your gut.

You’ve painstakingly de-glutenized your entire house – replaced your toaster, cleaned out your pantry, tossed out your gluten-containing lip balm.  Ordering at a restaurant is now a conversation with the kitchen rather than a simple order off the menu.  You bring your own food with you most everywhere you go.  And yet still, despite all your efforts, you don’t feel as well as you should.  Consider that another food could be the culprit.  Could it be dairy? Maybe, but the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.  When it comes to dairy, there are a couple of possibilities:

  • Lactose intolerance: CD causes damage to the lining of the small intestine, causing a decrease in the amount of enzymes that are produced there.  Lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, or milk sugar, is one of these enzymes.  The result is digestive symptoms that take all the fun out of indulging in a dish of ice cream!  Once you’ve been completely gluten-free for a period of time and your gut begins to heal, it may be possible to tolerate milk products again.  A hydrogen breath test can diagnose lactose intolerance. If it’s just the lactose you’re sensitive to, you may be able to tolerate dairy with very little to no lactose such as whey protein and some hard cheeses.
  • A second possibility is that your immune system is reacting to the proteins in dairy products, which would be considered an allergy or sensitivity. A simple blood test can help you determine which foods – including dairy – your body is producing antibodies to. Some people are simply allergic to one of the proteins in dairy, casein, but can tolerate whey protein.

Are you unsure what to replace your snack of cheese and crackers with?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Create your own trail mix.  I like the combo of raw pumpkin seeds (toasted), raw almonds (toasted), dried figs (quartered), unsweetened banana chips, unsweetened coconut flakes, and raisins. Yum!
  • Try one of the gluten-free and dairy-free Zing bars – 5 flavors to choose from. Even those who are lactose sensitive can usually tolerate small amounts of whey protein, part of the Zing protein blend in 3 of our flavors.
  • Make roll-ups with collard greens: spread some hummus or olive tapenade on the collard green, add any mixture of veggies such as grated carrot or zucchini, avocado slices and even a slice of turkey.  Roll up and enjoy.

For more in-depth information, here are a couple of my favorite resources for dairy-free living, including food substitutes and recipes:

  1. The Go Dairy Free website contains information on everything dairy free, and there is also a printed book available.
  2. The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen Blog has many delicious GF and vegan recipes, and there are two published cookbooks available.

Eliminating dairy for a short time, and then testing different forms of dairy such those containing lactose (milk, yogurt, cheese) and those without may be helpful to find the culprit. Dealing with food allergies can be daunting on your own, so it’s important to find an experienced healthcare practitioner who can recommend a specific protocol that includes not just eliminating the offending foods, but also adding in anti-inflammatory foods and supplements that soothe and heal the gut.  The Institute for Functional Medicine website provides a list of practitioners around the country who specialize in these types of protocols.

Did you at some point go dairy free? Has it helped you or not?

Erin Hugus, MS, CN has a Master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University. Erin is an expert in Diabetes care and is passionate about empowering people with realistic strategies for optimal health. She takes great pleasure in her time spent in the kitchen and loves cooking nourishing meals for her family.

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