A study has found for the first time that one in six adult Australians are choosing to avoid milk and dairy foods, the majority without a medical diagnosis, leading to public health concerns for women in particular.

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The survey, undertaken by CSIRO and the University of Adelaide, found that the vast majority of avoiders (74 per cent) 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 for not including diary in their diets.

The study also revealed that the decision to avoid some or all dairy foods is influenced by a range of sources from outside medical practice such as the internet, media, friends or alternative practitioners.

CSIRO’s Bella Yantcheva, behavioural scientist on the research team, explains the significance of the findings.

“The scale of people restricting their diet without a medical reason is very concerning in terms of the public health implications, especially for women.

“It means there is potential for nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, or the risk that an underlying health condition could be going untreated,” she said.

Dairy foods are important for all of us, but especially for women owing to the calcium content, and foods from the dairy and alternatives group are important throughout life to reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

However, the study revealed that more women are avoiding milk and dairy foods than men.

These results follow the team’s similar findings on wheat avoidance, which showed around ten times as many Australians than diagnosed with coeliac disease are avoiding wheat-based foods.

The 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 numbers show that cutting out significant, basic food groups isn’t a fad but something far more serious,” said Ms Yantcheva.

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, dairy and grain-based foods are important for a balanced diet.

They contribute significantly to our intake of fibre, protein and a wide range of essential vitamins and nutrients, on top of calcium in dairy’s case.

“It’s not just about missing out on the food type being avoided and risking your health, but also possibly overconsuming other foods to compensate as well,” Ms Yantcheva said.

The paper, Food avoidance in an Australian adult population sample: the case of dairy products , is published in this month's issue of Public Health Nutrition.

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  • CSIRO researcher and one of the authors of the paper, Dr Sinead Golley.

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Fast facts

  • A study by CSIRO and the University of Adelaide reveals that one in six adult Australians are choosing to avoid milk and dairy foods, the majority without a medical diagnosis.
  • Three quarters (74 per cent) of avoiders are avoiding milk and dairy foods to relieve adverse gastrointestinal symptoms such as cramps, bloating or wind.
  • The study showed that more women are avoiding milk and dairy foods than men although dairy foods are especially important for women owing to the calcium content.
  • Milk, cheese and yoghurt have various health benefits and are a good source of many nutrients, including calcium, protein, iodine, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and zinc (Source: Australian Dietary Guidelines).
  • For women aged 19-50 years, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend two and half serves of dairy or dairy alternatives per day, increasing to four serves per day after the age of 50. Men between the ages of 19 and 70 years should consume two and half serves a day, and increase to three and half serves after the age of 70 years. A serve of dairy is equal to 250mls of milk, two slices or 40g of cheese, or a 200g tub of yogurt.
  • See your doctor if you have any concerns about your health.

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