Understanding what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to lactose intolerance can be confusing. Because February is National Lactose Intolerance Awareness Month, we’re here to set the record straight on lactose intolerance - so you can eat dairy foods with confidence.
Let’s start at the beginning with lactose itself. Lactose is a type of natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Lactose intolerance occurs when the body does not produce enough of an enzyme called lactase. Lactase is what "breaks down," or digests, lactose. Lactose intolerance is not an allergy to milk.
The symptoms of lactose intolerance can range from moderate to severe, depending on how much lactase the body produces. Common symptoms include bloating, cramps, gas, diarrhea or nausea within 30 minutes to 2 hours of consuming some types of dairy foods. However, there are other conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and GERD that have the same effects on the gastrointestinal system, which is why talking to a doctor is the best way to get an accurate diagnosis. Many doctors will assume you’re lactose intolerant based on your symptoms, so ask for a test to be sure – your symptoms could mean something else.
One piece of fiction is that being lactose intolerant means you can’t ever consume dairy. This is far from true. Many people who believe they are lactose intolerant eliminate dairy from their diet and miss out on all the nutritional benefits dairy has to offer. This isn’t always necessary. Many people have not been properly diagnosed as lactose intolerant. Each person has a unique response to lactose, which is why individualized solutions should be discussed with a doctor. Getting a doctor’s opinion is important because it can help distinguish between a milk allergy and lactose intolerance.
Doctors can suggest a compatibility plan for living with lactose intolerance to determine just how much lactose a person should consume. There are many ways to incorporate dairy into almost any food plan. Lactose-free dairy products and dairy products that have very little lactose are easier to digest and offer a way for people with lactose intolerance to still enjoy dairy on a daily basis. People tend to forget that lactose-free milk is still real milk and contains all the same nutrients.
The good news is, even if the doctor diagnoses you with lactose intolerance, you can still enjoy dairy foods. There are over-the-counter medicines that aid in the digestion of dairy foods; and as mentioned before, you can try lactose-free milk (and ice cream!) or you can try to reintroduce dairy into your diet using these simple tips from the National Dairy Council:
SIP IT. Start with a small amount of milk daily and increase slowly over several days or weeks to build your tolerance. Consuming solid food with small amounts of milk can also help your system to adjust.
TRY IT. Opt for lactose-free milk and milk products, like Lactaid. These real milk products have little-to-no lactose and provide the same nutrients as regular dairy foods. And they taste great!
TOP IT. Top sandwiches or crackers with natural cheeses like Cheddar, Colby, Queso Blanco, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella and Swiss. These cheeses contain less than 0.1 grams of lactose per serving.
SPOON IT. Enjoy yogurt. Both traditional yogurt and Greek-style yogurt contain live and active cultures that help digest lactose.
You can join the #EatConfidently conversation or test your lactose intolerance knowledge with this quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Lactose Intolerance?
For even more information on lactose intolerance visit the National Dairy Council's Lactose Intolerance Information Page.