How to Talk to Your Friends and Family about Lactose Intolerance

To say that there are a lot of myths about lactose intolerance would be a serious understatement. You’ve been hearing it all over the news, the media, and from your friends and family members ‘I’m gluten-free,’ ‘I think I have celiacs,’ ‘I’m cutting carbs and dairy,’ ‘I’m lactose-free,’ or our personal favorite ‘I’m lactose,’ as if you can just become a dairy sugar.  

So often nutrition comments are ungrounded-- you watch a friend eat a giant bowl of milk-based soup with no gastric complaints and then go on about how they are so disappointed they can’t drink milk any more. It’s so hard to be a counselor when all you want to do is call someone out for lying, so you say nothing. But that doesn’t help either.

The truth is, people who have diagnosable lactose intolerance have trouble breaking down lactose, that natural sugar in milk. Lactose intolerance is not a dairy allergy, and the amount of lactose one can tolerate without having upset stomach varies from person to person.

Here are a few tips about lactose intolerance that might be a good neutral response next time you hear a family member or friend share some misguided information.

1. Yes; Milk Has the Most Lactose.

Acknowledge the fact that the person may have lactose intolerance. While it is unlikely, lactose intolerance is a very individual condition. Moreover, reports do recognize that as we age, we become less able to digest large amounts of lactose in one serving. Remember, many times when people are making health claims about foods they are doing so in the search of answers and information, and acknowledgement is the first step in providing advice.  

After recognizing the issue, remind your friends that dairy products have differing amounts of lactose and that they likely will be able to manage their lactose intolerance by looking at their serving sizes (most people can consume 8 oz. of milk or 12 grams of lactose in one setting) and choosing smaller serving sizes can allow friends to enjoy milk even with lactose intolerance.   

2. Try Cheese and Yogurt

Cheese and yogurt are naturally low in lactose with many hard cheeses containing no lactose at all. During the cheese production process, when milk is separated into curds and whey, most lactose is drained from the curds. Encourage your networks to take a look at the Nutrition Facts label on cheese— lactose is a sugar and is represented as a carbohydrate on the label. If a cheese label has zero grams of carbohydrate, the product has no lactose. Yogurt can be a good choice for those struggling with lactose management as well. Yogurt generally has less lactose than milk and it’s healthy bacteria can help digest lactose naturally.

3. There’s a Pill for That

Lactose intolerance symptoms occur when the body is unable to break down milk’s natural lactose into two digestible parts. The enzyme lactase (produced in your small intestine) does this for us; but, some people produce it better than others. Lactase pills are available over-the-counter and help digest lactose as naturally as your body does. Remind your friends and family members that these are available and can be taken when consuming large amounts of lactose.

Next time you hear a comment about lactose intolerance remember to acknowledge the issue and make some suggestions for management. For more information about lactose intolerance and to download handouts and tip sheets send your friends and family to eatsmart.org