The Best Milks for Your Belly

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What Makes a Milk Belly-Friendly?

milk being poured from a pitcher
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Although a mother's milk is the ideal food for infants, and most of us were raised with tall glasses of milk alongside our meals and snacks, milk is not always a friend to our digestive systems. Many people have an intolerance to lactose, which results in symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea and excessive intestinal gas.

What makes a milk dairy friendly, therefore, is that it is low in lactose and doesn't contain any other ingredients that are associated with digestive distress. With gratitude toward the researchers at Monash University, we can use their work on FODMAPs, carbohydrates that exacerbate symptoms in people who have IBS, to gain some clarity as to which milks are easiest for our bellies to digest.

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1. Lactose-Free Milk

woman with a glass of milk
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Lactose-free milk is typically cow's milk that has had lactose removed. This allows people who have lactose-intolerance, meaning that they lack sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase needed to digest lactose, to enjoy milk without experiencing unwanted digestive symptoms. Lactose-free milk is allowed on a low-FODMAP diet.

Proponent's of cow's milk consumption point to milk's nutritional makeup - including protein and vitamins, most notably calcium. Milk has  certainly had a long-held reputation for being important for bone health. 

Other researchers question whether humans should be drinking milk at all, stating that research does not support the claim that milk reduces fracture risk and that milk consumption brings about other health risks.

For the purposes of this article, lactose-free milk is a good choice if you have IBS and/or lactose intolerance and want to avoid stomach cramping and excessive intestinal gas. But knowing about the possible risks of cow's milk can help you to feel better about using non-dairy milks for the sake of your stomach.

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2. Almond Milk

Almond milk
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Almond milk used to be considered to be a high-FODMAP food.  Luckily, almond milk has been recently tested by the researchers at Monash University and found to be low in FODMAPs at the level of a 1 cup serving. 

Almond milk contains a whole host of vitamins and minerals, most notably Vitamins D and E and calcium. 

Store-bought almond milk may contain added sweeteners, and often contains carrageenan, a somewhat controversial thickening agent. If you would like to read more about this, see "What Is Carrageenan?"

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3. Hemp Milk

bowl of hemp seeds
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Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds. Are you thinking, "Isn't hemp marijuana?" It is true that they both classified within the same family, but actually are very different plants.

Hemp milk is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and contains a wide variety of other vitamins and minerals. Hemp milk is a good source of plant-based protein and thus can be beneficial for vegetarians.

The good news is that hemp milk has been found to be low in FODMAPs by the Monash researchers at a one cup serving size.

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4. Coconut Milk

coconut milk with half coconut
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Coconut milk is extracted from the meat of coconuts. Coconut milk is a good source of fiber, and is filled with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Although coconut milk is high in saturated fats, it is believed that its lauric acid levels and medium-chain triglycerides are actually health-promoting.

If you have IBS, you will need to be attentive to portion size. According to the Monash University app, serving size should be limited to 1/2 cup.

Many commercial coconut milks have guar gum added. Guar gum is not a FODMAP, per se, but may have a laxative effect. It is unclear if the coconut milk tested at Monash University contained guar gum. Like almond and hemp milks, coconut milk is easier to make at home than you would think. With a homemade version, you do not have to have any concern about other added ingredients.

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5. Kefir

Pitcher and glass of kefir
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Kefir is a fermented milk drink typically made from the milk of cows, sheep, or goats, but can also be cultivated from coconut milk, and the not-so-IBS-friendly soy and rice milks. As a fermented food, kefir is filled with multiple strains of beneficial probiotic bacteria and yeast.

Kefir is thicker than regular milk, but much thinner than its related counterpart, yogurt. It has a pleasant, tangy flavor. 

Kefir stands apart from the other milks on this list because it holds the potential for doing more than just not causing digestive symptoms, but rather may actually improve the health of your digestive system. To learn more, see "Why Kefir May Be Just What Your Belly Needs."

Unfortunately, kefir has not yet been tested at Monash University for its FODMAP count. However, it is believed that the fermentation process results in a low-lactose food, therefore a educated guess is that it is likely that it will be well-tolerated by most people who have IBS.

Sources:

Gibson, P. & Shepherd, S. "Evidence-based dietary management of functional gastrointestinal symptoms: The FODMAP approach" Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2010 25:252-258.

"Calcium and Milk: What’s Best for Your Bones and Health?" Harvard School of Public Health Website Accessed November 10, 2015.

Monash University Low FODMAP Diet App Accessed Nov. 5, 2015.

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