Does the thought of a big glass of milk or an ice cream cone make your stomach sour? You might be lactose intolerant. It’s pretty common, with a little over 1/3 of Americans experiencing pain and discomfort after eating dairy. It’s also more prevalent in those of African, Latin, Asian, and Native American descent.
Did you know, however, that if you have lactose intolerance, you don’t have to entirely avoid dairy products? Learn more in today’s edition of nutrition mythbusters!
Myth: If you are lactose intolerant, you will have it your whole life.
Fact: Not necessarily. If your lactose intolerance is related to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase after infancy, then your symptoms may persist long-term. This is known as primary lactose intolerance. However, if your lactose intolerance is due to another medical condition—Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or other GI conditions/surgery, then symptoms may be temporary and should improve with time. This is also known as secondary lactose intolerance.
Myth: If you are lactose intolerant, you must omit ALL dairy products.
Fact: Most with lactose intolerance can tolerate a small amount of lactose without ill effects. Please note that this is different from a true dairy allergy—those with an allergy should strictly avoid all dairy products. Blinded studies indicate that most can tolerate up to 12 g lactose in a single dose, or 18 g spread over the day. What does this amount of lactose look like on your plate or in your glass? 12 grams of lactose is equal to the amount in about 1 cup of milk, or a little over 1 cup of Greek yogurt. Aged cheeses such as cheddar and Swiss are very low in lactose (<1 g per serving), as is cream cheese, butter, sour cream, and cream.
Myth: Taking a lactase supplement or probiotic capsule will allow me to eat whatever I want.
Fact: Taking lactase enzyme before eating dairy products may be helpful, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Another option would be to buy dairy products treated with lactase enzyme, such as lactose-free versions of milk, ice cream, and yogurt. Keep in mind, however, that these products are often more expensive and may not be necessary.
Probiotics may be helpful in reducing symptoms in some people, but the research is currently not complete enough to recommend this approach.
Myth: Dairy products don’t provide nutritional value anyway. What’s the harm in avoiding them?
Fact: Dairy is still the primary source of calcium and Vitamin D in the diet. Several studies have shown that those who experience lactose intolerance also have lower bone mass. If you avoid dairy for lactose intolerance or other reasons, it’s important to think about where you will find calcium and Vitamin D.
You can get Vitamin D from sunshine, egg yolks, cheese, and fatty fish. You could also consider using a milk alternative that has been fortified with Vitamin D. Good sources of calcium include sardines (with bones), calcium-fortified juice or milk alternatives, fortified cereals, and soft tofu. Supplementation may be necessary if you cannot meet your needs through diet alone.