Lacto-vegetarianism is a branch of vegetarianism.
A vegetarian diet consists mostly of a plant-based dietary style, with no intake of animal-origin foods.
While a lacto-vegetarian diet is based on the same principles of a vegetarian diet while allowing the consumption of low-fat dairy products (milk, cheese, and yogurt).
Unbalanced vegetarian diets can sometimes be deficient in essential nutrients like vitamin B12, calcium, iron and vitamin D.
Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal sources (beef, and cow’s milk), and rarely occurs in plant-based sources.
Dairy products provide a key source of protein, fats, vitamin B12, and calcium.
A lacto-vegetarian diet is purported to offer a range of health benefits such as improved cardio-metabolic health, and bone health; and protection against cancer, cognitive decline, and depression.
Some people may choose a lacto-vegetarian diet for health reasons or environmental reasons, while others just can’t stomach the idea of cutting dairy out of their diet, but at the same time would like to try and eat more plant-based.
A lacto-vegetarian diet may be appealing to individuals who would like to limit their intake of animal-origin foods, and follow a more plant-based style of eating, while still allowing the intake of dairy products, which is able to provide them with a key source of protein, and essential vitamins and minerals – otherwise lacking in a strict vegetarian diet.
In this article we explain (in plain English!) the conclusions of scientific studies that have looked at lacto-vegetarianism.
Drawbacks of Lacto-Vegetarianism
In this section, we will discuss the drawbacks of a lacto-vegetarian diet.
It is recommended to discuss with your doctor or a registered dietitian before choosing to start a new diet.
Food Allergens and Food Intolerances
A lacto-vegetarian diet is not suitable to people with a known milk allergy or individuals who are intolerant to lactose.
Milk is one of the most common food allergens (FDA, 2022).
Some individuals may have a milk allergy (immunological reaction to cow’s milk protein), which results in an allergic reaction, that can manifest as skin rashes, hay fever-like symptoms, or gut issues (Host, 2002).
While a lactose intolerance is due to the body not being able to create the enzyme, lactase that is responsible for breaking down lactose, and can lead to bloating, and abdominal cramping (Bahna, 2002).
Increased Risk of Prostate Cancer
A lacto-vegetarian diet, particularly ones with high intakes of dairy, may put you at a greater risk of developing prostate cancer.
The USA has the highest rate of prostate cancer, globally. With prostate cancer being the leading cancer among men in the USA (CDC, 2022).
According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, increased consumption of dairy products could increase your chance of developing prostate cancer “High intake of dairy products and calcium may be associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, although the increase appears to be small” (Gao et al., 2005).
To reduce your risk, ensure that you consume low-fat dairy products, in moderation.
Benefits of Lacto-Vegetarianism
Despite the drawbacks of a lacto-vegetarian diet covered in the previous section, many studies have reported the range of health benefits a lacto-vegetarian diet can offer.
In the sections that follow we highlight studies that have linked lacto-vegetarianism with health benefits such as:
A lacto-vegetarian diet may aid in weight loss and help you maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI).
A 2014 study published in the journal, PLoS One, evaluated the effect of dairy consumption on obesity.
The study consisted of a group of 7173 adults (aged 19-64).
They reported that those who consumed higher intakes of dairy products were less likely to be obese “These results suggest that high consumption of dairy products is associated with a lower prevalence of obesity” (Lee et al., 2014).
Another study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, investigated the effect of various vegetarian dietary styles on BMI and obesity risk in a population of over 50 000 Swedish women.
They found that participants adhering to a lacto-vegetarian diet, compared to those following an omnivorous diet were less likely to be obese “Even if vegetarians consume some animal products, our results suggest that self-identified semi-vegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women have a lower risk of overweight and obesity than do omnivorous women” (Newby et al., 2005).
Reduced Risk of Diabetes
A lacto-vegetarian diet may lower your chances of developing diabetes.
A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, investigated the link between type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) risk and dairy consumption.
They found that dairy consumption, specifically low-fat dairy was linked to decreased risk of T2DM “An inverse association of daily intake of dairy products, especially low-fat dairy, with T2DM was revealed, indicating a beneficial effect of dairy consumption in the prevention of T2DM development” (Tong et al., 2011).
According to another study by Agrawal et al. (2014) “lacto-, lacto-ovo and semi-vegetarian diets were associated with a lower likelihood of diabetes”.
A lacto-vegetarian diet, rich in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and moderate amounts of low-fat dairy provides protection against diabetes.
Reduced Risk of Hypertension
A lacto-vegetarian diet may have a protective effect against hypertension.
A 2012 study published in the journal, Hypertension, examined the influence of dairy consumption on high blood pressure, in a population of over 50 000 individuals.
They reported that low-fat dairy and milk consumption could reduce your risk of hypertension “This meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies suggests that low-fat dairy and milk could contribute to the prevention of hypertension” (Soedamah et al., 2012).
Improved Heart Health
A lacto-vegetarian diet may provide protective benefits to your heart health.
A 2012 study published in the journal, Nutrition in Clinical Practice, evaluated the effectiveness of a lacto-vegetarian diet against metabolic and cardiovascular disease, in a Chinese population.
The study consisted of 169 lacto-vegetarians and 126 omnivores, between the ages of 21 and 76.
Measurements were taken to determine lipid profile, and insulin sensitivity; and cardiovascular risk was calculated.
They reported that lacto-vegetarians had reduced body mass, lower blood pressure, and lower total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol “Compared with omnivores, lacto-vegetarians had remarkably lower body mass index, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and serum levels of triglyceride, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol”.
These results are indicative of lower CVD risk factors “Lower CVD risks found in vegetarians also reflect the beneficial effect of the Chinese lacto-vegetarian diet” (Yang et al., 2012).
Lower Risk of Frailty and Sarcopenia
A lacto-vegetarian diet may protect you from frail bones and sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass).
A 2019 study published in the journal, Advances in Nutrition, evaluated the association between dairy consumption and risk of sarcopenia and frailty in the elderly.
They reported that dairy desserts and ice cream were linked to cognitive decline “In older women, high intakes of dairy desserts and ice cream were associated with cognitive decline” (Cuesta-Triana et al., 2019).
While, low-fat dairy and yogurt, were associated with a lower risk of frailty “The consumption of dairy products by older people may reduce the risk of frailty, especially with high consumption of low-fat milk and yogurt” (Cuesta-Triana et al., 2019).
The authors also reported that low-fat dairy products protected against loss of skeletal muscle mass “may also reduce the risk of sarcopenia by improving skeletal muscle mass through the addition of nutrient-rich dairy proteins (ricotta cheese) to the habitual diet” (Cuesta-Triana et al., 2019).
This evidence is supported by a similar study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, that reported that greater intakes of low-fat dairy milk and yogurt were linked to a reduction in frailty “Higher consumption of low-fat milk and yogurt was associated with lower risk of frailty and, specifically, of slow walking speed and weight loss” (Lana et al., 2015).
Reduced Risk of Cancer
A lacto-vegetarian diet may lower your risk of cancer, specifically colorectal cancer.
A 2013 study conducted by scientists from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, at the Imperial College London, examined the link between dairy consumption and colorectal cancer risk.
Data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) containing 477 122 participants, with a follow-up period of 11 years, was analysed.
The authors of the study reported that milk consumption resulted in a reduced risk of colorectal cancer “total milk consumption was inversely associated with colorectal cancer risk” (Murphy et al., 2013).
They also went on to say that dairy products may have a protective effect against colorectal cancer “Our results strengthen the evidence for a possible protective role of dairy products on colorectal cancer risk” (Murphy et al., 2013).
Reduced Symptoms of Depression
A lacto-vegetarian diet, consisting of low-fat dairy products may prevent symptoms of depression.
A 2017 study published in the journal, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, examined the link between consumption of low- and whole-fat diary with incidence of depressive symptoms.
Over 1000 Japanese adults (19-83 years) were included in this study. Dietary habits of each participant was gathered, and participants were asked to rate their feelings of depression using a self-rating depression scale (SDS).
The authors of the study reported that participants consuming greater quantities of low-fat dairy were less prone to experiencing depressive symptoms “The current results indicate that a higher frequency of low-fat dairy consumption may be associated with a lower prevalence of depressive symptoms” (Cui et al., 2017).
Physical Fitness Benefits
A lacto-vegetarian diet may improve your physical fitness.
A 2020 study published in the Nepal Medical College Journal, evaluated the effectiveness of a lacto-vegetarian diet on physical fitness outcomes in comparison to non-vegetarians.
They reported that lacto-vegetarians displayed higher exercise durations and physical fitness scores than their non-vegetarian counterparts “The present study concludes; lacto-vegetarians are physically fit compared to non-vegetarians” (Yadav et al., 2020).
Improved Fibromyalgia Symptoms
A lacto-vegetarian diet may help relieve pain in people suffering with fibromyalgia.
A 2018 study published in the journal Nutricion Hospitalaria, evaluated the effectiveness of a physiotherapy treatment regime and a lacto-vegetarian dietary plan on lower back pain and body dimensions of women suffering from fibromyalgia.
They reported that the lacto-vegetarian diet coupled with the physiotherapy exercises was successful in alleviating lower back pain, and even lead to increased muscle mass, and reduced fat “four-week intervention program combining core stabilization exercises plus lacto-vegetarian diet in patients with fibromyalgia who have low back pain contributes to pain reduction and improved body composition” (Martinez-Rodriguez et al., 2018).
Reduced Risk of Dementia
A lacto-vegetarian diet may reduce your risk of developing dementia.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, examined the link between milk and dairy consumption on dementia, in a population of elderly Japanese participants.
A total of 1081 participants aged 60 and older, with no history of dementia were included in the study, with a follow-up period of 17 years.
They found that higher consumption of milk and dairy products had a protective effect against dementia “Greater milk and dairy intake reduced the risk of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s Disease, in the general Japanese population” (Ozawa et al., 2014).
Evidence strongly suggests that a lacto-vegetarian diet is capable of positively benefiting your health in a multitude of ways, including:
A lacto-vegetarian diet is able to provide you with the added benefit of a high protein source and essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium, which are generally lacking in a strict vegetarian diet.
When following a lacto-vegetarian diet make sure you eat a variety of healthful plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seed, and low-fat dairy foods like yoghurt, milk, kefir, and cheese.
Always opt for lacto-vegetarian, dairy products that are low-fat and as close to their natural state as possible. Avoid high-fat, processed dairy products, which contain added sugars, sweeteners, and preservatives which can be detrimental to your health.
Lastly, it is recommended to discuss with you doctor or registered dietitian before starting a new diet, and determine if it is the right dietary pattern for you.