The Best Milks for Your Belly

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 friendly for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 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.​


Lactose-Free Milk

smiling 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, vitamins, and (most notably) calcium. Milk has certainly had a long-held reputation for being essential 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. Milk consumption could also bring 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 milk for the sake of your stomach.


Almond Milk

Almond milk in a carafe among almonds

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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 vitamin D, vitamin E, and calcium. 

Store-bought almond milk may contain added sweeteners, and often contains carrageenan, a somewhat controversial thickening agent.


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 1-cup serving size.


Coconut Milk

coconut milk with half coconut beside it

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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 by many 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 for coconut milk. 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 milk, 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.



Pitcher and glass of kefir

esemelwe / E+ / Getty Images

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 milk. 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 milk 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. 

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 an educated guess is that it is likely that it will be well-tolerated by most people who have IBS.

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  2. Bian S, Hu J, Zhang K, Wang Y, Yu M, Ma J. Dairy product consumption and risk of hip fracture: a systematic review and meta-analysisBMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):165. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5041-5

  3. Fraser G, Miles F, Orlich M, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Mashchak A. Dairy milk is associated with increased risk of breast cancer in the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2) Cohort (P05-026-19)Curr Dev Nutr. 2019;3(Suppl 1):nzz030.P05-026-19. doi:10.1093/cdn/nzz030.P05-026-19

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