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One in six Australians are eliminating the food group without medical advice, with women particularly putting themselves at risk.
Kemal Atlay

1 Jun 2016 - 3:55 PM  UPDATED 2 Jun 2016 - 11:17 AM

Australian scientists have revealed that one in six adults are avoiding milk and dairy foods without medical diagnosis, according to a new study.

A team of researchers from the CSIRO and the University of Adelaide conducted a survey of the dietary habits of over 1100 Australian adults and found a growing social trend where people were eliminating dairy food from their diet without advice from a medical expert. The study was published today in Public Health Nutrition.

Co-author Dr Sinead Golley, a behavioural scientist from the CSIRO, says the findings were concerning because a large number of people were putting themselves “at risk of potential nutrient imbalances."

“I think one of the key and surprising findings that came out of the research was just exactly how many people this is impacting,” Dr Golley tells SBS. “For us, finding that one in six adult Australians are choosing to avoid or eliminate dairy from their diet is quite a substantial number and it really talks to significant dietary trends.

“The removal of a food group such as dairy - and we’re also finding that people who are avoiding dairy are also avoiding wheat - puts them at risk of potential nutrient imbalances, so that’s a concern from a public health perspective.”

The researchers found that 74 per cent of dairy avoiders were making the decision in order to dodge adverse gastrointestinal symptoms, whereas 18 per cent had removed dairy from their diet due to taste or because they thought it was fattening.

 That’s a concern from a public health perspective.

They also found women were more likely to avoid dairy foods compared to men, which was particularly concerning given women are at a higher risk of osteoporosis later in life.

According to Melanie McGrice, an accredited practicing dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, women who were avoiding dairy would need to find a suitable replacement to continue getting nutrients such as calcium, which helps protect against osteoporosis.

“For women aged between 19 and 50, the recommended intake is two and a half serves [of dairy] a day, and that increases up to four serves a day in women post-menopause,” Ms McGrice tells SBS.

She said a serve of dairy was equivalent to a 250ml glass of milk, or a 200g tub of yoghurt or a 40g serve of cheese.

“If they think they can’t meet them, they need to be speaking to an accredited practicing dietitian to find some suitable replacements,” Ms McGrice says.

“I think unfortunately that messages aren’t getting through about the importance of dairy and instead we’re seeing a lot of misinformation through media and social media about the negatives sides of dairy and people are cutting it out.”

"Women who were avoiding dairy would need to find a suitable replacement to continue getting nutrients such as calcium, which helps protect against osteoporosis."

The reasons for the gender difference were unclear, however Dr Golley said more research was needed to determine whether women were “more likely to investigate if they’re feeling unwell compared to men, or whether there’s some physiological difference between men and women and how they digest foods that might actually be underpinning that proportion”.

Another key part of the research was that a third of dairy avoiders were also found to be avoiding wheat-based foods. This mimicked trends from a previous study on wheat avoidance, where around ten times as many Australians than diagnosed with coeliac disease were found to be avoiding wheat-based foods.

“What we’re seeing is such a huge proportion of Australians are experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort,” Dr Golley says.

“Unfortunately, perhaps when they’re going to the doctor, because the symptoms that they’re experiencing are quite generic, such as stomach discomfort or cramps, makes it really difficult for their GP to give a definitive diagnosis of what might be wrong.”

Dr Golley says self-diagnosis could also mean more serious underlying conditions, such as allergies, could go undiagnosed and cause symptoms to become worse.

“It’s important to make sure that you are on this restrictive diet for legitimate reasons and you’re not unnecessarily putting these restrictions on yourself and leading to this potential risk for nutrient imbalances,” she says. 

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