As a former IBS sufferer and a holistic, functional dietitian nutritionist specializing in gut health, I’d love to pave the way for you by answering a frequently asked question that comes up a lot in my clinic: “What’s the best milk for IBS sufferers?”
Let’s face it: whether you’re suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), one thing most people with gut issues can agree on is to never take for granted certain simple pleasures like diving into a bowl of cereal with real milk, or going out for ice cream without any kind of “aftermath”… let’s address that, once and for all!
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not medical or nutritional advice. It is meant to be educational. Make sure to consult with your doctor and a registered dietitian / holistic nutritionist if you’re trying to navigate IBS from a nutrition standpoint!
Affiliate disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I may make a small commission on qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you.
Table of Contents
Milk and IBS
Milk isn’t inherently bad, and if you ask me, dairy products are pretty darn tasty! But the unfortunate reality is that most people with IBS / SIBO / IBD can’t drink a big glass of milk without some kind of unwanted consequences.
This is due in part to a few underlying reasons, and you may relate to just one of these or both:
- Lactose intolerance
- Milk/dairy sensitivity or allergy
It’s not always clear and cookie-cutter, and it’s not always an “either-or” situation.
- For example, in my functional nutrition practice, many of my clients with IBS-D (diarrhea-predominant IBS) actually turn out to have BOTH a lactose intolerance AND a dairy sensitivity, more often than not!
- Read more about lactose intolerance vs dairy sensitivity here.
Now, you’re probably wondering: how do I figure out which milk or milk substitute will work best for me? I’ll walk you through that below!
IBS nutrition guidelines and parameters: start here
Despite what you may have read online, no two people with IBS are going to have the same list of “safe” foods and trigger foods.
Due to your bio-individuality (unique biochemical makeup), what works best for you will be unique to your individual needs!
Nonethelesss, I see a lot of overlap and lots of patterns among IBS sufferers in my clinic.
That being said, to get the most out of what I’m about to share, there are a few things you should look into and take into consideration before choosing the best milk or milk substitute for your IBS relief:
- Make sure you have a healthy relationship with food before reading any further.
- The information I’m sharing in this article about milk, milk substitutes and IBS is evidence-based, but may not be as helpful or relevant if you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder.
- Get clear on whether you have a lactose intolerance, dairy sensitivity, or both.
- For example, if you’re lactose intolerant, you may still be able to drink lactose-free dairy milk (if you want).
- If you have a dairy sensitivity/allergy (i.e. you still don’t feel good when you have Lactaid milk, yogurt, or cheese), you should opt for dairy-free alternatives to milk.
- Be aware of how your body reacts to FODMAPs, fillers, and different types of sweeteners, which are hidden in most types of mainstream milk substitutes. (Paleo and GAPS-friendly milk substitutes are my go-to!)
(You can determine all of this via a combination of clinical testing, functional nutrition testing, and keeping an IBS food diary, with help from a functional dietitian / holistic nutritionist, as needed!)
Once you’re a little more clear on what’s going on in your body, you can move onto the next step, which involves label reading and grocery shopping.
Navigating nutrition labels
Below are some general guidelines and tips you may want to consider when grocery shopping and choosing a staple IBS-friendly milk/milk substitute to keep on-hand at home.
- Friendly reminder: While this should go without saying, please don’t worry about this stuff when you go out to cafes, restaurants, cookouts, parties, or are traveling! 😉
Organic, antibiotic-free + lactose-free (dairy)
As I mentioned above, from a digestive health standpoint, people with lactose intolerance (which is most people with IBS) will usually benefit from lactose-free milk and dairy.
If you consume dairy, I also recommend leaning more towards products that are organic, grass-fed, non-GMO and/or antibiotic-free whenever possible.
- This is not just because of health reasons, but also for the sake of supporting better animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
Real food ingredients
If you look at an ingredient list, is it a bunch of words that you can’t pronounce, or is it just a few simple foods/sweeteners that you could easily go and find somewhere in the grocery store?
This is a quick, easy way to weed out milk substitutes (aka “plant milks”) that are loaded with a bunch of junk. 😉
Minimal added sugar in milk substitutes
Unsweetened milk alternatives are generally better for people with IBS than their sweetened counterparts, which often have as much added sugar per serving as a candy bar.
- Learn more about my holistic perspective on sugar and IBS, here!
No carrageenan in milk substitutes
You can look for this by reading the ingredient list on the nutrition label.
- Other fillers (like guar gum, xanthan gum, etc.) don’t have as many clinical studies pertaining to IBS and gut health, but anecdotally, many of my clients with IBS seem to feel better when they consume plant milks that don’t contain as many fillers. 😉
A quick reminder: food for thought
I’m not talking about an extreme, all-or-nothing way of living. Those paramaters are listed so you can have an understanding of what to look for when grocery shopping. (Knowledge is power!)
The stuff you’re putting in cereal/coffee/smoothies etc. at home everyday will have a bigger impact on your gut health than stuff you have only once-in-a-while.
- For example: I still occasionally eat “normal” lactose-free/low-lactose dairy foods (i.e. butter, cheeses) and more mainstream milk substitutes (i.e. in a coffee) when I’m out socializing, and I don’t worry about it – but I strive to choose ethically-sourced, antibiotic-free dairy and better quality plant milks when grocery shopping and eating at home.
If you can’t find any of the options below, and you can’t find any products that align with the guidelines I shared, just do the best you can – and of course, consult an expert if you need more support!
So, what’s the best milk for IBS sufferers?
Oh boy – that was a LOT to unpack! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry – I’ve got you covered. (Keep reading!)
For your convenience, I went ahead and did the “heavy lifting”, by combing through all the ingredient labels of all the products, and distilling this list down to all the best milk/milk substitute contenders for IBS (below), so you don’t have to figure that out on your own.
- I’ve also made sure to include some recipes for simple, cost-effective IBS-friendly milk alternatives in case you’re on a tighter budget!
Best organic + low FODMAP lactose-free milks
- Organic Valley Lactose Free Whole Milk*
- Organic Valley Lactose Free 2% Milk*
- Organic Valley Lactose Free 1% Milk*
Best dairy-free milk substitutes
The following dairy-free milk alternatives are made with whole food ingredients, and no fillers or refined sweeteners, and they meet most of the criteria for low FODMAP and/or GAPS/Paleo parameters.
(Read more about IBS diets here to understand why and how that specific criteria pertains to IBS!)
- MALK unsweetened almond milk*
- MALK vanilla almond milk*
- Elmhurst milked almonds*
- Three Trees unsweetened original almond milk*
- Three Trees unsweetened vanilla almond milk*
- Homemade plain/vanilla almond milk (tip: add some real maple syrup or another IBS-friendly sweetener of your choice, for extra flavor)
- Nutty Life almond milk
- Nature’s Greatest Foods pure coconut milk*
- Native Forest unsweetened classic coconut milk*
- Native Forest coconut milk simple*
- Nutty Life coconut milk
- Homemade coconut milk
Note: cashews are high in FODMAPs. Some people with SIBO don’t tolerate cashews well, but most people with IBS don’t seem to have an issue with this cashew milk in my clinic!
- Homemade flaxseed milk (tip: add a dash of real maple syrup for flavor)
Macadamia nut milk
Note: oat milk is not considered low FODMAP if over 1/4 cup, according to Monash University, but generally well tolerated by many people with IBS.
- Rise original oat milk*
- MALK original oat milk*
- MALK unsweetened vanilla oat milk*
- MALK chocolate oat milk*
- Elmhurst unsweetened milked oats*
- Nutty Life oat milk
- Willa’s unsweetened oat milk*
- Forager Project unsweetened oat milk*
It’s not common to find pecan milk in stores, but you can order the MALK version on Amazon (affiliate link below) or it’s also very easy to make!
Soy milk and IBS
You may be wondering at this point, what about soy milk? There’s a lot of mixed research when it comes to soy and gut health (and health in general)…
I’ve also seen lots of people (anecdotally, in my functional nutrition clinic over the years) not tolerate soy milk very well from a gut health standpoint, which is why I chose not to endorse soy milk as IBS-friendly.
Rice milk and IBS
I haven’t found any great rice milk products on the market that meet my standards in terms of not having a ton of added fillers and sweeteners. Rice is also very high in glycemic index, so rice milk isn’t a plant milk that I usually endorse.
On the other hand, rice is gluten free, low FODMAP and very easy to tolerate from an IBS standpoint for most people!
If you’d like to give rice milk a try as an IBS-friendly milk substitute, your best option would be to make your own homemade rice milk.
Learn more where that came from!
- What’s the Best IBS Diet?
- Lactose Intolerance vs Dairy Sensitivity: How to Tell the Difference
- 7 Reasons Oatmeal and Oat Milk Can Cause Diarrhea
- IBS and Sugar – A Holistic Perspective
- What’s the Best Sweetener for IBS?
- Low FODMAP Sweeteners 101
Best milk for IBS sufferers – conclusions
When it comes down to choosing the best milk for IBS, there are lots of options! Referring to the holistic nurition paramaters I shared in this article can help you narrow down your options, or you can also use the above list of products as a guide.
In a nutshell, it comes down to what types of foods you can tolerate best, and what you prefer, combined with choosing a product that is:
- Lactose-free / dairy-free
- Preferably organic/ non-GMO
- Derived from real food ingredients
- Low in processed sugars and fillers (to help support a healthier gut micrbiome)
Lastly, please remember the world of health and nutrition is not black-and-white, health is on a spectrum.
For example, you might not necessarily need to worry about trying to stick to those types of parameters when you’re out at parties, cookouts, restaurants, airports, cafe’s, etc – options will likely be a lot more limited, and that’s totally fine.
(It’s what we choose to do most of the time that impacts gut health moreso than what we do only once in a while!)
Needless to say, the world of gut health and IBS can be complex, but it’s still figureoutable. If you’d like to learn more from me, and you’d like my own experiences as a former IBS sufferer to pave the way for you on your journey, feel free to take the next step by downloading my free gut health guide:
XO – Jenna