Does your stomach seem to revolt after drinking milk or eating ice cream?
If you’re reacting badly to dairy products, the culprit could be lactose intolerance.
You certainly wouldn’t be alone. Millions of folks worldwide (including more than 7 million people in Canada) suffer from lactose intolerance. In fact, an estimated 70% of adults globally are lactose intolerant to varying degrees. That’s nearly 3/4 of all adults on the planet! That being said, it’s important to know the difference between lactose intolerance and a milk allergy. Lactose intolerance is the inability to properly digest the lactose (a complex sugar) naturally found in dairy products. A milk allergy, on the other hand, occurs when the immune system overreacts to a milk protein. Unlike lactose intolerance, which causes abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating, a milk allergy can be life threatening.
Diagnosing the problem
If you suspect that you may be suffering from lactose intolerance, there are a few objective and standardized tests that you can take to confirm your condition. Keep in mind that self-diagnosis is often incorrect and can lead to unnecessary dietary restrictions. The most objective test for diagnosing lactose malabsorption is the hydrogen breath test. It measures the level of hydrogen in the patient’s breath after consuming a standard dose of lactose. Lactose malabsorption is diagnosed when the level of hydrogen breathed out is abnormally high
Making dietary changes
If you are indeed diagnosed with lactose intolerance, a few dietary changes will usually be required. The good news is that lactose intolerance does not mean having to eliminate all dairy products. For example, yogurt with probiotics and ripened cheeses such as mozzarella, cheddar, swiss, brie and blue cheese are produced by fermenting milk with lactic acid bacteria—a process during which some of the lactose is converted to lactic acid. Thanks to this process, these products are generally well tolerated.
You can also replace your usual ice cream with sorbet and cow’s milk with lactose-free milk, soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, coconut milk or almond milk. There are many tasty alternatives out there!
Also make it a habit to routinely read the list of ingredients on product labels. Lactose is used as a food additive in a surprisingly large number of foods, including bread, cereals, cold meats, salad dressings, cake mixes and cookies.
Since dairy products are important sources of nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D, people with lactose intolerance should take extra care to ensure their diet contains enough of these two essential nutrients from other food sources.
Calcium is essential for bone growth and repair; a deficiency can lead to osteoporosis. Fortunately, non-dairy sources of calcium abound. Calcium can be found in dark green vegetables like broccoli and kale, in fish such as salmon and sardines, in legumes like soybeans and red beans, and even in tofu.
Vitamin D, meanwhile, helps to improve calcium absorption. Not only does it help to keep bones strong and healthy (which prevents osteoporosis), it also promotes muscle strength (which prevents falls). In addition to dairy products, vitamin D can also be found in egg yolks, in orange juice, in enriched soy and rice drinks, in fatty fish like salmon, sardines and herring, and in fish oils such as halibut and cod liver oil. Despite the fact that it’s is found in so many food sources, most Canadians have insufficient levels of vitamin D.
Living with lactose intolerance is easily managed. It just takes a few extra precautions and smart food choices to avoid deficiencies. If necessary, calcium or vitamin D supplements can also be taken to compensate for any shortfalls in your diet.