Lactose Intolerance

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Lactose intolerance is one type of food sensitivity—it’s not an allergy. It is the result of not having enough lactase, an enzyme that digests the natural sugar in milk called lactose.

The amount of lactase a person has is genetic. People who have low levels of lactase enzyme may experience intolerance symptoms such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea if they consume more lactose than their system can handle at one time.

The Facts:

  • Lactose intolerance is not as widespread as many people think and it does not require complete avoidance of dairy foods. In fact, research shows that people who have trouble digesting lactose can enjoy dairy foods daily. Not everyone diagnosed with lactose intolerance will experience symptoms. Lactose intolerance is not an “all-or-nothing” condition.
  • Those who have been diagnosed with lactose intolerance still produce lactase at a low level and can digest some of milk’s natural sugar. Most can enjoy at least one 8 oz. glass of milk with a meal without any problems.
  • If you think you may be lactose intolerant, talk to your doctor. Avoid self-diagnosis. There may be another cause for your symptoms. Sometimes an intolerance to milk is only temporary, brought on by certain medications or by illnesses such as the flu.

Tips to Manage Lactose Intolerance

  • Start small: Try small portions of milk and milk products. This allows whatever lactase is there to do its job of digesting the lactose before it starts causing problems.
  • Work it in: Start with a smaller portion and slowly increase the serving size of the dairy foods you eat. When you notice symptoms that may signal your limit for lactose you can handle at one sitting.
  • Pair the dairy: Drink milk with other foods, not on an empty stomach. Solid foods slow digestion and allow the body more time to digest the lactose, which helps prevent symptoms.
  • Older is wiser: That’s true with cheese! When milk is made into cheese, most of the lactose is removed. Aged hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, Colby, Swiss and Parmesan, are particularly low in lactose.
  • Get a little “culture”: Look for cultured milk products such as yogurt with live, active cultures, which contain “friendly” bacteria that help digest lactose.
  • Reduce it: Look for lactose-free milk in the dairy case. It has all the nutrients of regular milk.
  • Make it easy: Look for lactase enzyme pills at your drugstore. Take them with your first sip or bite of dairy foods. These can help you digest lactose easily.

Go to the pros: These tips may not apply to everyone. Follow the advice of your doctor and see a registered dietitian.

Be Nutrient Conscious

Calcium is one of milk’s most important nutrients. Because calcium is essential to health, don’t let lactose intolerance keep you from consuming enough of it. See Key Nutrient: Calcium for more information.

It’s the whole package:

  • Milk, cheese and yogurt are important sources of essential nutrients and together provide calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, B12, riboflavin and niacin. 
  • Milk and some yogurts also provide vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium.
  • Studies show dairy foods, when consumed as part of a healthy diet, contribute to better bone health, improve overall diet quality and may help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, obesity, kidney stones and colon cancer.

Advice from the Experts

  • Milk alternatives within the milk food group, such as yogurt and lactose-free milk, are the most reliable and easiest way to get the health benefits associated with milk and milk products.
  • Children with lactose intolerance should still consume dairy foods in order to get enough calcium, vitamin D, protein and other nutrients essential for bone health and overall growth.

This post was last updated on January 2nd, 2020 at 9:35 AM

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