Lactose intolerance is often misunderstood. With roughly one in 10 American adults considering themselves lactose intolerant – based largely on self-diagnosis – it’s actually less common than believed. Lactose intolerance refers to the gastrointestinal symptoms that may be experienced following intake of lactose (the natural sugar found in milk) in amounts greater than the body’s ability to digest and absorb lactose.
“Misconceptions regarding lactose intolerance can sometimes cause people to eliminate dairy products from the diet, potentially leading to nutrition shortfalls and risk of adverse health outcomes,” says registered dietitian Lois McBean. “It’s important to fully understand your symptoms and discuss them with your doctor, who can recommend a test.”
Here are the top five things you should know about lactose intolerance, in honor of February as Lactose Intolerance Awareness Month:
Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy
Lactose intolerance refers to the body’s inability to properly digest the sugar lactose. A milk allergy, on the other hand, is a reaction to one or more milk proteins triggered by the immune system. Cow’s milk allergy is reported in about 2% of infants and young children and tends to be outgrown by five years of age.
Don’t rely on symptoms alone to diagnose lactose intolerance
Without testing it’s impossible to know for sure if one’s digestive symptoms are caused by lactose, a learned aversion, or an unrelated gastrointestinal problem. Medical experts recommend an objective test, such as the breath hydrogen test, to diagnose lactose maldigestion. If you suspect you are lactose intolerant, check with your health care provider about testing. Misdiagnosis of lactose maldigestion could lead to unnecessary dietary restrictions, expense and nutritional shortcomings, or failure to diagnose a gastrointestinal disorder.
Persons with lactose intolerance can still consume dairy foods
Most individuals with lactose intolerance do not have to remove milk and other dairy foods from their diets. There are several effective dairy-based strategies to help lactose intolerant individuals. “Drink smaller servings of milk with meals,” recommends McBean. “Yogurt with live, active cultures will help your body digest the lactose better, and hard cheeses like Cheddar and Swiss are low in lactose.”
Lactose-free dairy milk is a good option for those with lactose intolerance
Lactose-free dairy milk is 100% real dairy, just without the lactose. The lactase enzyme (which helps the body digest and absorb lactose) is added to the milk to break down the lactose, making it lactose-free. “Lactose-free dairy milk and conventional milk products all provide the same essential nutrients,” says McBean. “Dairy is an important part of the diet, and lactose-free milk is an excellent option for those with lactose intolerance."
It’s hard to replace the nutrients lost by eliminating dairy from the diet
The USDA recommends adults and children nine years and older consume 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy foods every day. “Dairy is considered a nutrient-rich food, because it provides nine essential nutrients, including high-quality protein,” according to McBean. You would have to eat about 10 cups of raw spinach to get the same amount of calcium (300 mg) as from an 8-ounce glass of milk. “Also, dairy milk alternatives such as almond, coconut and soy beverages may be more processed and usually contain more than eight added ingredients compared to dairy milk,” states McBean.