Do you think you might have lactose intolerance, or do you know someone who does? If so, you are likely getting advice from a wide range of people on what you should and shouldn't be eating.
Unfortunately, there is a large amount of misinformation about lactose intolerance.
The following common questions and answers about lactose intolerance will help you separate the myth from reality.
What is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance refers to digestive disturbances caused by not having enough intestinal lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose--the sugar found naturally in milk and milk products.
If lactose is not digested, it can cause gas and stomach cramps. While no treatment exists to improve the body's ability to produce lactase, symptoms can be controlled through diet.
In reality, many people who say they have trouble digesting milk have actually never been diagnosed as lactose intolerant by a health professional. In fact, some individuals falsely assume that symptoms of other intestinal disorders—such as irritable bowel syndrome or even discomfort after consuming broccoli or legumes—are due to lactose intolerance and unnecessarily give up dairy products.
Drinking Milk Gives Me Gas and Makes Me Feel Bloated. Does that Mean I am Allergic to Milk?
Milk allergies can cause stomach discomfort similar to that of lactose intolerance but with milk allergies the body may react more quickly and/or include skin reactions and breathing difficulty.
True milk allergies are very uncommon. Only about 2 - 3 percent of children experience cow's milk allergy and they usually outgrow this by age three. In adults, the incidence is even lower.
Chances are you are not allergic to milk but may have some degree of lactose intolerance. Try consuming smaller amounts to see what your "threshold" is for digesting lactose. Using the tips below will help to ensure that you are getting enough of the important nutrients in dairy foods without experiencing symptoms.
Does Lactose Intolerance Mean I should Avoid all Milk and Dairy Products?
No. Avoiding dairy products altogether makes it difficult to get the calcium you need. Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, which is needed to develop and maintain strong bones.
Often people with lactose intolerance can comfortably consume smaller amounts of dairy products throughout the day. A recent study showed that most people with lactose intolerance can consume up to 2 cups of milk per day, one in the morning and one at night, without experiencing symptoms. Others may be able to manage ice cream and aged cheeses, such as cheddar and Swiss.
Dietary management of lactose intolerance depends on each person learning through trial and error how much lactose they can handle.
People who give up dairy products consume far less calcium than they need, putting themselves at risk for chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, hypertension and certain types of cancer.
If you have an extreme case of lactose intolerance, talk to a registered dietitian about how to get enough of these nutrients from other sources.
Are Certain Ethnic Groups More Likely to be Lactose Intolerant?
Some ethnic groups such as African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians and Latinos have a higher chance of developing lactose intolerance. The condition is least common among persons of northern European descent.
If I can Get my Calcium Through Supplements and Fortified Foods like Orange Juice, Why Should I Bother with Milk Products?
Calcium-fortified foods may be a good way to boost your calcium intake if your intake is low. However, fortified foods do not always provide the same combination of nutrients as found in nature (for example, milk provides calcium and other bone-building nutrients protein, vitamin D and vitamin A). In addition, the calcium from fortified foods may be less completely absorbed than calcium found naturally in foods.
In addition, new research shows that there may be a number of other components in milk and milk products that are beneficial to health. Fortified foods and supplements don't come close to providing this unique "package of nutrients" available only through dairy products. Milk and milk products have an irreplaceable package of nutrients that cannot be found in any other single food or beverage.
Tips for Eating Dairy Foods if you are Diagnosed with Lactose Intolerance:
- Drink milk with meals or snacks. Symptoms are generally milder if milk is consumed with other foods.
- Consume dairy products in smaller amounts—if one cup of milk makes you uncomfortable, try one-half cup.
- Try chocolate milk—it may be better tolerated and is nutritionally comparable to regular milk.
- Buy lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk.
- Eat yogurt and hard cheeses (cheddar, Monterey Jack and mozzarella), which have as much calcium but less lactose than softer cheeses and milk.
- Increase your consumption of milk products gradually. Your body will slowly build up the enzyme it needs to digest the lactose.
- You may consider taking lactase enzymes. These come in the form of drops to add with milk and in capsules to have before a meal.
- Include other good food sources of calcium in your diet, such as spinach, kale, almonds and fortified foods.
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