It is estimated that more than 25 million Americans are lactose intolerant. Their bodies can’t digest lactose, an enzyme found in dairy products. Symptoms are unpleasant and include diarrhea, nausea, bloating and gas. Most people who suffer from lactose intolerance end up avoiding dairy altogether. But new research suggests that might not be necessary.
Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D also helps the body absorb calcium, making it even more crucial. Eliminating dairy products can cause nutritional problems if you don’t make up for the vitamin loss in other ways. Studies have shown that calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones and can result in fractures.
It is important to note that being lactose intolerant is not the same as having milk allergy, which is a more serious condition affecting far fewer people. Experts now agree that people can have varying degrees of lactose intolerance and that keeping dairy in the diet is actually beneficial. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that children with mild lactose intolerance should try to keep some dairy products in their diet, particularly cheese and yogurt, which contain less lactose. Recent research has also shown that children and adults with lactose intolerance can build up tolerance over time by drinking small amounts of milk, which can slowly change their intestinal bacteria and make lactose easier to digest.
The amount of lactose you can tolerate is often determined by trial and error, but almost everyone — regardless of whether they are lactose intolerant — needs to keep dairy proteins in check to avoid the uncomfortable symptoms of diarrhea, stomach cramps, and gas. Try these strategies for easing yourself back into dairy:
- Spread out dairy servings. Try dividing your daily lactose intake into small (4-8oz) servings and spacing them out during the day.
- Incorporate dairy in meals. Solid food slows down emptying of the stomach and allows extra time for lactase to break down lactose. For example, after a large lunch, then have a small glass of milk.
- Prepare your body before meals. Lactase tablets or enzyme supplements are available over-the-counter. Taking lactase 30 minutes prior to ingesting dairy can help control symptoms. When it comes to milk, you can look for a “lactose free” variety, which simply means the milk contains pre-digested lactose.
- Eat Yogurt. Yogurt with live and active cultures is low in lactose and may not cause you any symptoms. The live cultures in yogurt pre-digest lactose, making it suitable for many people with lactose intolerance.
After trying these strategies for keeping dairy in your diet, some people will still find that they need to avoid dairy. If that’s the case, you will need to ensure that you are getting enough calcium in your diet. Here is a list of calcium-rich, non-dairy foods you should be eating:
- Canned salmon or sardines with bones
- Calcium-fortified orange juice
- Raw broccoli
- Canned white tuna
- Calcium-fortified soy milk
- Dark green leafy vegetables
The bottom line is if you are one of the millions of Americans suffering from lactose intolerance, it doesn’t mean you should avoid dairy altogether. Try working some into your diet and see what your body can tolerate. Over time, increase those amounts and you may find that foods you once had to avoid, you are now able to enjoy!