Advertising would have us believe that “Every body needs milk,” but an estimated 50 million sufferers of lactose intolerance would disagree. They experience abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, gas, cramps or diarrhea after consuming dairy products.
Milk is not a "perfect food" for individuals who do not produce enough of the enzyme lactase, needed to digest lactose, or milk sugar. Undigested lactose produces stomach and intestinal symptoms within 30 minutes to two hours after eating.
Lactose intolerance can be found in people of all ages with males and females affected equally. Certain ethnic groups, whose diets do not traditionally include dairy, are more likely to have the intolerance. These include people of Asian, African, Native American and Hispanic backgrounds.
Lactose intolerance is often found in individuals with other digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s or celiac disease. As people grow older, they may become less tolerant of dairy because of reduced amounts of lactase.
Many people think they are lactose intolerant but may not be. You can start by eliminating dairy products for at least two weeks to see if there is any improvement. Then, reintroduce milk by drinking a little and waiting two to three days for symptoms to show up. It’s a good idea to see a doctor because other food intolerances and digestive disorders have similar symptoms. A blood or breath test may be used to check for the problem.
There is no cure for lactose intolerance but it can be managed with a proper diet that includes calcium. Dairy-free sources of calcium include enriched soy, rice or almond milk, as well as tofu, broccoli and beans.
Individuals with mild lactose intolerance may be able to manage their situation by cutting back on dairy products. Drinking lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk is an option. In some cases, yogurt and cheese can be eaten without problems. Cheese has lower amounts of lactose, while the “live and active cultures” in yogurt may improve digestion.
Problems may be avoided by eating dairy products with other foods. For instance, have a glass of milk with a sandwich. If symptoms are severe, dairy foods may have to be avoided completely. A dietician may be able to help plan a well-balanced diet that includes alternatives to milk.
Reading food labels is a must. Lactose is added to many processed foods, such as bread, cereal, lunch meat, salad dressing, cake or cookie mixes, and coffee creamers. Watch out for these ingredients---butter, cheese, cream, dried or powdered milk, milk solids or whey. They mean the food has lactose in it. Always read medication labels because they may contain lactose.
Taking a lactase enzyme supplement may help with digesting lactose. Several products are available, including Lactagen, Lactaid, Digestive Advantage and Dairy Care.