Myth: People With Lactose Intolerance Need to Avoid All Milk and Dairy Foods

Milk Myth

Myth Buster: Most people with lactose intolerance can enjoy milk and dairy foods.

Lactose intolerance—the inability to digest the milk sugar lactose—can result in cramping, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and nausea. There is a wide range of lactose intolerance, however, and most people with lactose intolerance can comfortably consume certain dairy foods with minimal or no symptoms. By careful experimentation everyone can find out their "threshold" level for consuming milk and dairy foods. Often, drinking smaller amounts of milk with meals will eliminate symptoms. Hard cheese and yogurt, both fairly low in lactose, are also well-tolerated. Flavored milk, lactose-reduced milk or taking a lactase pill before consuming milk and dairy foods are other ways to manage lactose intolerance.

Dairy-free diets are generally not necessary or advisable due to the host of nutrients they are missing. People who eliminate milk and dairy foods have lower intakes of calcium and other nutrients, putting them at risk for osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. Bone density is compromised in both children and adults who follow dairy-restricted diets1 putting children at risk for low bone-mineral density and bone fractures2 and adults at risk for osteoporosis.3

If someone has avoided milk and dairy foods for a period of time, gradually introducing these foods back into their diet over a the course of a few weeks seems to help with digestion.4,5 Over time, people with lactose intolerance who consume milk and dairy foods on a regular basis show positive changes in their gut that result in increasing their tolerance level. Additional tips on including dairy in the diet are available on this consumer tip sheet from Purdue University

It is important to distinguish lactose intolerance from milk allergy, which is an immune reaction to the protein in milk. True milk allergy is very rare; only about 1 to 3 percent of children have milk allergy, and fewer adults.

 

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1Greer FR, Krebs NF, Committee on Nutrition. Pediatrics 2006;117;578-585.
2Goulding A, et al. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104:250-253.
3Heaney RP. J Amer Coll Nutr 2009;28(1):82S-90S.
4Pribila BA, et al. J Amer Diet Assoc 2000;100(5):524-28.
5Zhong Y, et al. Effect of probiotics in subjects with lactose intolerance. Wei Sheng Yang Jiu. 2006;35(5):587-91.