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Experts / November 2020
Julie Bensman, Reebok Editorial

How Does Non-Dairy Affect Your Workout?

When you cut out cow’s milk, consider this.

Almond, macadamia, oat, soy, flax, rice, coconut. The list of plant-based milks goes on and on. Sales of alternative milks were up eight percent last year, hitting $1.7 billion in sales. So why are so many people cutting out dairy? 
Well, if you’re lactose intolerant, drinking cow’s milk can be pretty grim. Symptoms include nausea, cramps, bloating, gas and diarrhea. But even if you’re not lactose intolerant, dairy could be the trigger behind skin issues and even your chronic bad mood. 
Before you decide to cut out dairy entirely, it’s important to consider the nutritional toll it might take on your workout. Here’s what to consider when canceling milk.


Not everyone is lactose intolerant but according to a study by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, many more of us are than we might have realized. Some 30 million to 50 million Americans can’t handle lactose, including up to 75 percent of African Americans and American Indians and 90 percent of Asian Americans. 
“I was dealing with some health issues a few years ago and my doctor recommended I go on an autoimmune protocol, which included eliminating dairy,” says Brittany Fuisz, founder of Malibu Mylk, an organic flax milk company. “Within a week, I noticed a decrease in my body’s inflammation and much clearer skin. And I was just generally in a better mood.”
“Cutting out dairy can make a huge difference in how you feel,” says Stephanie Middleberg, Registered Dietitian and author of The Big Book of Organic Baby Food and The Big Book of Organic Toddler Food. “People go dairy-free to address gastrointestinal issues like IBS, skin problems like eczema and autoimmune conditions like celiac, but they also might be conscious of environmental reasons.”
A 2018 University of Oxford study found that a glass of cow’s milk resulted in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based milks. Even worse? It used nine times more land than any of the milk alternatives. 
Whatever your reason, it doesn’t hurt to just try cutting out dairy (obviously, you can add it back in whenever you want). Middleberg says she often recommends eliminating dairy for her patients. “Anytime someone comes in with digestive or skin issues, or even an inflammatory condition, I just want to see what cutting dairy does for them,” she says. 


So what’s the problem with cow’s milk and why is it worsening so many conditions? The answer might not come down to what so much as where. Much of the dairy in the U.S. is highly pasteurized. During that process, it loses the essential enzymes most people need to digest it. 
One thing’s for sure: In the world of wellness, milk is a polarizing topic. “Dairy is nutrient-rich so if it agrees with you, definitely incorporate organic, grass-fed dairy into your diet,” Middleberg says. “Try kefir, cottage cheese, unsweetened yogurt, hard cheeses like Parmesan and cheddar and softer cheeses like goat cheese, feta and ricotta. On the flip side, if dairy doesn’t agree with you, it will be inflammatory, cause congestion and increase androgen hormones that can aggravate skin conditions.”
Most people fall somewhere in the middle on the lactose-tolerance spectrum. That being said, if you’re ready to cut out dairy in favor of a plant-based milks, knowing where to start can be pretty overwhelming. A stroll down the dairy aisle of your fancy local grocery store will offer countless milk alternatives, not to mention yogurts, cheese and butter.
“Of course, I’m biased, but flax milk is a great way to increase your fiber and omega-3 intake,” says Fuisz. “It has a nice, thick consistency, so it’s great in smoothies, coffee, cereal or even baked goods.”
Middleberg says she love flax milk, too, which is also high in protein. Similarly high in protein? Pea milk. And although soy milk ranks high in protein, too, it’s usually a heavily-sprayed GMO crop, so she recommends skipping it.


Dairy isn’t crucial to an athlete’s performance, but protein is. So for those looking to keep up their fitness regimen but cut out cow’s milk, they’re going to want to supplement those essential amino acids, carbs and electrolytes. “Most plant-based milks are just watered-down versions of what they’re made from, with little nutrition,” says Middleberg. “I don’t recommend athletes turn to plant-based milks for a nutritional boost, but they can fortify other areas of their diet.”
For calcium, try greens like kale, spinach, collards, sesame seeds, tahini and fatty fish like sardines, tuna and salmon. Calcium works best with ample supplies of Vitamin D, so pick up some eggs, fish and mushrooms (or take a Vitamin D supplement). 
One of the biggest predictors of workout success is motivation, which dairy can also mess with. But, as is often the case with dairy, it’s complicated. Middleberg explains that dairy contains the protein casein, which contains casomorphins. Casomorphins are morphine-like compounds that attach to brain receptors, which may help explain why people love dairy so much. When we eat certain dairy products (like cheese!), a surge of dopamine is released.
“Dairy is often a ‘feel-good’ food from a chemical standpoint but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it does our bodies good,” Middleberg says. “If dairy is leading to pain and inflammation in certain people, that can definitely lead to anxiety and depression. Being in chronic pain or discomfort can really dictate your mood especially when you don’t know what the cause is. And, of course, impact your workout.”
So, here’s an idea: Cut out dairy and see how you feel. And then do you what makes you feel good. No matter where you decide to land on the topic, just make sure to keep on moving. 
Experts / November 2020
Julie Bensman, Reebok Editorial