Lactose intolerance, or the inability to properly digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products, is a common ailment that becomes even more common as we age. As we get older, our bodies produce less and less lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. People of certain ethnicities (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans) and with other digestive conditions (Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease) are also at an increased risk of developing lactose intolerance.
For people with lactose intolerance, consuming dairy products can be uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance are bloating, gas, and an upset stomach after consuming dairy. The good news is that these symptoms are temporary, and, unlike in some other gastrointestinal disorders, no structural damage to the digestive tract occurs. Although lactose intolerance can be managed by avoiding dairy products altogether, this probably isn’t the best strategy, as dairy is an excellent source of calcium, potassium, and other essential nutrients. A more nutritious way to manage lactose intolerance doesn’t involve cutting out dairy at all; rather, it requires a little bit of record-keeping and planning to incorporate dairy products into your diet with minimal disturbance to your digestive tract by:
- Identifying your triggers. Trigger foods vary from person-to-person. Some people will experience symptoms when consuming cheese, others when drinking a glass of milk. Keep a food and symptom journal so you can identify which dairy products give you the most discomfort. Many people with lactose intolerance are able to identify a few foods that give them symptoms, and a few that they can consume without any problems.
- Choosing easier-to-digest dairy products. Hard cheeses and milk from animals other than cows (goats, sheep) tend to contain less lactose. Yogurt contains probiotics, which help improve digestion.
- Eating smaller portions. Many people with lactose intolerance are able to consume small portions of dairy (a sprinkle of cheese, 4 ounces of lowfat milk) without any symptoms.
- Combining dairy with other foods. Dairy tends to be digested easier if it’s consumed alongside other foods. Cereal with milk or a yogurt parfait with granola and fruit are good options to try.
- Buying “lactose-free” foods. Lactose-free products, like milk, aren’t really lactose-free; they contain the addition of the enzyme lactase to help digestion. This means that “lactose-free” milk has all the same nutrients as regular cow’s milk, but those who are lactose intolerant are able to digest it, thanks to the addition of lactase.
- Taking lactase enzymes. Lactase, commonly sold under the brand name Lactaid, is commercially available in tablets you can chew or swallow. Most people with lactose intolerance are able to consume dairy products when they take one or two Lactaid pills with their first bite or swallow of dairy. The lactase in the tablets instantly helps with digestion.
These strategies prove that it’s possible to enjoy dairy and all its nutritional benefits even if you suffer from lactose intolerance. If you choose to go dairy-free, however, pay attention to your calcium intake, and look for lower-calorie milk alternatives. Soymilk contains the closest nutrient profile to cow’s milk, so it can be a close substitute for the real thing. When choosing a soy or other non-dairy milk, make sure you buy the unsweetened variety, as anything else is going to be high in added sugar.