Could dairy (and specifically lactose) be Inhibiting Your Athletic Performance?

My mom always told me dairy was healthy, that I needed the calcium from milk to keep my bones strong. But now I hear Tom Brady ditched dairy and it improved his performance. What’s the real story? Is dairy (and the lactose in it) healthy, or was I duped by my milk-pushing mother?

The answer: It depends.

Dairy? Lactose? What’s the connection and how can it potentially help you perform?

Lactose is a carbohydrate made from galactose and glucose. Between 2-8% of milk is lactose. It’s also found in other dairy products that come from cows, sheep or goats, such as yogurt, sour cream, coffee creamers, whey protein and cheese. 

As you can imagine, lactose is present in the diet of many athletes. Being a carbohydrate it is beneficial as a fuel. 

The chocolate milk theory: Drinking chocolate milk as a recovery drink has become a  popular trend among athletes in recent years, because chocolate milk has carbohydrates (including lactose) necessary to replenish lost glucose. Some athletes swear by the chocolate milk recovery drink, and if it’s working for you, keep on keeping on. 

A second reason athletes turn to dairy is because of its protein content. 

While it’s true that dairy products contain protein, it isn’t much  - and it’s far more effective to get protein is through lean meats and fish: 

  • 1 cup of milk has 8 grams of protein
  • 100 grams of chicken breast has 31 grams of protein 
  • 100 grams of salmon has 20 grams of protein.

Whey protein supplements are derived from milk and offer the benefit of a high quality protein but they come with the downside of being highly processed. This is especially true for whey protein isolates and hydrolysates. 

The bottom line: It’s always better to get protein from less processed foods if possible, and milk isn’t a great protein source.

What is Lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder, where the body doesn’t make enough lactase—the enzyme needed to digest lactose by breaking lactose into glucose and galactose—and, therefore has trouble, or cannot, digest lactose properly. Those with lactose intolerance experience gastrointestinal (GI) problems when they eat lactose.

While some of us can tolerate lactose, it is believed that as much as 65% of us have some degree of lactose intolerance.

How lactose and dairy may be inhibiting your performance

GI problems—from gurgling guts to diarrhea to constipation, are one of the most common problems athletes face, especially endurance athletes, as strenuous exercise makes the stomach more sensitive. This means even mild food allergies can become exacerbated when you’re training hard. 

And while the cause of GI issues while training cannot always be blamed on lactose, there’s evidence that lactose can be the root of the problem for many, especially those who are lactose intolerant. 

Three other effects on performance:

1. Increased phlegm: One of the most common reactions athletes report as a result of consuming dairy are increased levels of mucus or phlegm when they workout.

2. Increased risk of asthma: This 2020 study found that a diet high in cheese and dairy increases the risk of asthma.

3. Increased inflammation: Other science suggests that the sugars found in lactose can cause blood sugar spikes, which results in inflammation and negatively affects not only our performance, but also our immune system.

While there might be some logic to the chocolate milk craze, if you’re intolerant to lactose, those effects are likely to outweigh the benefits.

 

There’s hope! Check Out These Lactose-Free Alternatives

Take comfort: If you’re a chocolate milk drinking athlete who is realizing your body doesn’t love lactose, all hope is not lost. This 2014 study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition examined the effects of lactose-free milk on lactose intolerant Asian male endurance athletes. The result: The lactose free alternative proved to be an effective recovery drink. 

Note: When searching for alternatives to dairy products, you must first learn to recognize what you're trying to avoid. In short, look out for ingredients, such as whey, milk solids, curds and milk by-products, as all of these imply lactose. 

1. Alternatives to milk: If you’re an athlete who has been using milk in your morning smoothie to get your fat and protein grams, consider instead coconut milk or almond milk.

  • One cup of coconut milk has 6 grams of protein and a whopping 57 grams of fat!
  • If it’s not fat that you’re after, almond milk might be the better choice: It has about 4 grams of fat in 1 cup and a couple grams of protein. 

2. Alternatives for butter: If you’re an athlete who cooks your eggs and vegetables in butter, consider replacing it with ghee. Ghee is clarified butter made by simmering regular butter to separate it into its components and remove the lactose and casein. Like nut-based cheese, try it: You won’t miss regular butter!

3. Alternatives for cheese:But cheese was such a quick and easy and delicious snack to have with a piece of fruit after workout!’

  • Give plant-based cheeses a try. They have the fat and protein grams you’re after, but without the lactose. Smokey cashew cheese. Mmmmm. You won’t even miss your applewood smoked cheddar! 

4. Alternatives for whey protein: If you’re all gassy all the time, it’s not helping you. A great alternative is egg white protein powder, which is what we specialize in. Not only is our Egg White Protein Isolate lactose-free, it’s far less processed and contains less additives and other ingredients, meaning it’s as close to the real food as you can get. Learn more here.

 

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