If you think you’re lactose intolerant, recent research suggests you may not be.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health draft consensus says there is not enough data available to estimate the prevalence of true lactose intolerance in the United States, but it’s likely the numbers are much lower than those reported. People with lactose intolerance usually are told to avoid milk and milk-containing products, but this can deprive them of needed nutrients, particularly calcium and vitamin D.
Children and adolescents in particular can have a hard time getting enough calcium and vitamin D if they avoid dairy entirely. Adults are also at risk. Vitamin D and calcium are important for bone and cardiovascular health
Lactose is a sugar found in both human and cow’s milk. In order to be absorbed as a nutrient, lactose has to be digested by lactase, an enzyme present in the lining of the small intestine. When we’re babies, lactose levels in the intestine are at their highest in order to digest and absorb an important food source. By age 3 or 4, lactose production decreases and continues to do so as we get older. However, this doesn’t mean that we’re all lactose intolerant.
It’s important to distinguish whether symptoms attributed to lactose intolerance — diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence — result from another gastrointestinal condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease. Even if lactose is to blame, avoiding dairy products altogether is not always the answer.
Currently, when lactose intolerance is suspected, the common suggested course of action is total avoidance of dairy. This may be necessary for some people and they would need to make up for the lack of nutrients with supplementation. But for others, alternative strategies such as consuming small amounts of milk throughout the day or with meals or including yogurt and hard cheeses, especially low-fat hard cheeses, in the diet might be tolerable.
It is important to remember that lactose intolerance is not an allergic condition, whereby just a small amount of dairy would make you sick. There is some evidence to suggest that by continuing to consume small amounts of dairy, you can build up a tolerance. It is also possible that digestive enzymes, including lactose, can alleviate some of the discomfort dairy products may cause.