Athletes and Milk: 3 Myths About Lactose Intolerance

Athletes and Milk: 3 Myths About Lactose Intolerance

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Perhaps you have been held captive by a myth or two about dairy in your diet?  As an expert in sports nutrition and a lactose intolerant athlete, I am here to share not only the research-based science behind lactose intolerance, but also what works for me when eating dairy, not always what works for others, but a great place to start.

First, why drink milk and eat yogurt in the first place?  Milk and all dairy products provide a high quality protein source- whey protein. It is “best in class” for repairing and assimilating muscle tissue. In addition to muscle building protein, dairy provides vitamin A for vision and skin health; vitamin D for bone strength; and potassium and water for hydration.  Not to mention they are tasty, refreshing and provide one of the BEST sources of refueling post exercise.

Let’s take a look at some of the misconceptions I hear frequently as a sports dietitian:


Myth #1: No milk before games or practice.

“No milk before games or practice,” a coach said to me in a recent conversation. When I asked the coach why she recommends that her athletes do not have milk (or any dairy for that matter) before practice or games, she said “my coach told me as a kid that it causes phlegm, and that makes breathing difficult.”  Upon scouring the research for any possible science to back up this recommendation, I just couldn’t find any, not even a little.  And to make matters worse, restricting dairy in young athletes limits a rich source of bone-building calcium, protein and vitamins A and D.  It also eliminates an easy to tote pre-workout nourishing snack.

We are all individuals and some athletes may be able to tolerate milk before, during (yes, milk is OK during exercise) and after practices and games, while some may feel more comfortable only having it after exercise. The point here is be sure to respect the science and treat all athletes as individuals when making fueling prescriptions.


Myth #2: I can’t drink milk because it upsets my stomach.

“I can’t drink milk because it upsets my stomach,” 16 year old lacrosse playing Seth told me in a sport nutrition session last week.  As we dug deeper, we discovered that drinking 16 ounces of milk on an empty stomach causes this athlete’s belly to feel “crampy and uncomfortable.”  So we tried a lower dose of milk (8 oz) with food and IT WORKED!  No digestive upset at all.  Yogurt and hard cheeses also did not cause a problem for Seth and his gut. So now, Seth has a new fueling source and is playing better than ever!

The key here is that intolerance to milk can be dose-responsive.  If one portion affects you, try a smaller one before eliminating milk and dairy all together.


Myth #3: I can’t have dairy because I am lactose intolerant.

“I can’t have dairy because I am lactose intolerant,” 14 year old golf champ Mackenzie claimed in her initial sport nutrition session.  As we talked, when Mac (as she likes to be called) was younger, she would eat dairy and it would upset her stomach (especially before tournaments- nerves?) so her family recommended she stop eating dairy.  But Mac REALLY missed yogurt and ice cream. So we came up with some solutions for Mac to try:

  1. Try a lactase supplement with a small amount of dairy. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down milk sugar, called lactose.  Some bodies do not make enough of this enzyme and adding it in the form of a pill can allow the body to tolerate milk and dairy. I like to take the supplement with my first bite and I take another if I am still eating dairy 15 minutes later (like at a party with cheese).
  2. Try lactose-free dairy like Lactaid Milk and Yami Yogurt. Lots of products are now being created that are “lactose free” so give them a try!
  3. Experiment with small amounts of dairy starting with yogurt. Then try hard aged cheeses like Parmesan or Aged Cheddar.

After two weeks of experimenting Mac discovered a new love for lactose-free yogurt and brings lactase supplements with her so she can enjoy pizza and a little ice cream with friends.

Remember that being sensitive to dairy takes some experimentation to find what works best for you.  Be sure to try new food experiments in practice and not for the big game and remember that on game days, nerves can make just about any food “intolerant.” Its ok- you will rock it!!

About the author

Emily Edison, owner and founder of Momentum Nutrition & Fitness, is a recognized expert in the areas of sports nutrition and disordered eating, with over 17 years of experience as a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. Her philosophy centers around fueling with whole foods and eating intuitively, empowering people to eat for performance, improve vitality, and develop a positive relationship with food and body.