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Misconception: Lactose Intolerance Means Avoiding All Dairy

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

The fact that lactose intolerance means avoiding all dairy is a myth.

Lactose intolerance—the inability to digest the milk sugar lactose—can result in cramping, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and nausea. Lactose intolerance is a highly individualized condition, with a range of triggers, types and severity of symptoms. Most people with lactose intolerance can comfortably consume certain dairy foods and have few to no symptoms. 

Through careful experimentation, people with lactose intolerance can find their threshold for consuming milk and dairy foods expanding. These tips work for many people:

  • Drink smaller amounts of regular milk with meals
  • Drink lactose-free milk 
  • Take lactase pills before consuming dairy foods
  • Choose hard cheeses like sharp cheddar and swiss
  • Eat yogurt, which is naturally low in lactose

It is best to obtain a proper diagnosis from a health care provider rather than self-diagnosing and cutting out dairy foods completely. Dairy-free diets are generally not necessary or advisable due to the potential for falling short of essential nutrients. 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 diets, putting children at risk for low bone-mineral density and bone fractures later in life.

If someone has avoided milk and dairy foods for a period of time, gradually introducing these foods back into their diet over the course of a few weeks seems to help with digestion. 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 improved ability to comfortably eat dairy foods. 

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%–3% of children have a milk allergy, and fewer adults.

Science Summary: Lactose Intolerance. National Dairy Council website. https://www.usdairy.com/research-resources/dairy-and-lactose-intolerance-science-summary. Published June 21, 2019. Accessed September 4, 2019.

Greer FR, Krebs NF. Optimizing bone health and calcium intakes of infants, children, and adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. Pediatrics 2006;117(2):578–585.

Goulding A, Rockell JEP, Black RE et al. Children who avoid drinking cow’s milk are at increased risk for prepubertal bone fractures. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(2):250–253.

Heaney RP. Dairy and bone health. J Amer Coll Nutr. 2009;28(1):82S–90S.

Pribila BA, Hertzler SR, Martin BR et al. Improved lactose digestion and intolerance among African-American adolescent girls fed a dairy-rich diet. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000;100(5):524–528.

Zhong Y, Huang CY, He T et al. Effect of probiotics and yogurt on colonic microflora in subjects with lactose intolerance. J Hyg Res. 2006;35(5):587–591.