Lactose intolerance is a frequently misunderstood condition. It is not a food allergy nor does it mean you have to give up dairy products completely. Read on to find out how to manage this uncomfortable condition.

The Facts

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a food sensitivity. People who are lactose intolerant don't have enough lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the natural sugar found in milk. This milk sugar is called lactose. Without enough lactase enzyme, a person may suffer from gas, bloating or diarrhea. About 25 percent of U.S. adults are estimated to have low lactase levels. Yet, the number of individuals who experience symptoms is far less.

Should I avoid dairy if I'm lactose intolerant?

Not unless it is recommended by a physician. Research indicates that individuals with low lactase levels can consume the recommended number of servings of milk and other dairy foods. In fact, consuming lactose-containing foods such as milk may improve tolerance over time.

A recent study demonstrated that people with lactose intolerance can handle at least two cups of milk a day, if taken with food and spread throughout the day. This is great news since it is extremely difficult to meet nutrition requirements for calcium and other important nutrients without consuming dairy products.

Can't I get enough calcium from other foods?

Without dairy in the diet, it is extremely difficult to meet calcium requirements. The diets of most Americans fall short on calcium, which puts us at increased risk for osteoporosis and other health concerns. Milk products are the richest calcium sources. About 75 percent of the calcium in the American diet comes from dairy foods. Also, milk products provide eight other essential vitamins and nutrients. Fortunately, there are simple ways to manage lactose intolerance.

Tips For Tolerance

Most degrees of lactose intolerance can be easily managed. If you have trouble digesting lactose, try these tips to help you comfortably consume dairy foods.

  • Start small
    Try small, frequent portions of milk and milk products.
  • Increase slowly
    Start with a smaller portion and slowly increase the serving size.
  • Pair the dairy
    Drink milk with other foods, not on an empty stomach.
  • Reduce lactose
    Look for lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk or buy lactase enzyme drops to add to milk.
  • Say cheese
    Hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, Colby, Swiss and Parmesan, have very low levels of lactose so they are easier on the stomach.
  • Consider the options
    Many people find that chocolate milk is easier to digest than white milk. Also, yogurt with live, active cultures contains "friendly" bacteria that help digest lactose.
  • Make it easy
    Take a lactose enzyme tablet, available at grocery and drug stores, before consuming dairy.
  • Go to the pros
    These tips may not apply to everyone. Always follow the advice of your doctor.

For additional information check out these sources.

Lactose Intolerance

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse Discusses diagnosis and treatment of lactose intolerance, addresses calcium needs in the diet, and lists ways to identify processed foods that may contain lactose.

Why Does Milk Bother Me?

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse Contains similar information to the web page listed above but in an easier-to-read format.

Lactose Maldigestion/Lactose Intolerance

National Dairy Council
Contrasts lactose intolerance with lactose maldigestion, in which individuals have low levels of lactase but do not experience symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Lactose Intolerance and Minorities: The Real Story

National Dairy Council
Addresses issues related to lactose intolerance as they specifically relate to minorities.