Lactose Intolerance: The Basics

September 16, 2013

Does your stomach turn into a bloated balloon after consuming dairy? Lactose might be your issue. Find out the basics here

Have you ever felt bloated or gaseous after drinking a glass of milk or eating a bowl of ice cream? If it happens often after eating dairy products, you might be lactose intolerant. According to estimates, somewhere between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant — approximately one quarter of all American adults. And it can happen to anyone, at any age, even people who have never experienced any dairy sensitivity before.

What causes lactose intolerance?
Lactose is a sugar particular to milk and milk products. When milk is metabolized normally in the human body, the enzyme lactase breaks down lactose into the simple sugars glucose and galactose. A person who is lactose intolerant produces little or no lactase. Thus the intact lactose molecule passes through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, resulting in various GI symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and flatulence. These symptoms can occur anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after consuming milk products and will usually subside once the body has passed the lactose containing foods.

Lactose intolerance: How do you know?
Lactose intolerance symptoms are very similar to those of other GI disorders, making it difficult to spot. Unfortunately, many people who are not lactose intolerant believe that they are, and vice versa.

Approximately 20 percent of those with digestive problems fall into this "confused" category. Most people don't want to be lactose intolerant — many would rather continue to eat dairy products as part of their diet. But if you suspect you are lactose intolerant, it's best to speak with your health care practitioner. It's better to know what is causing your symptoms, and if it turns out that lactose is not the issue, you won't have to eliminate dairy from your diet or waste money on lactose-free products.

Living with lactose intolerance
If you discover that you are lactose intolerant, symptoms can be controlled through a diet that simply limits or eliminates lactose. Many products available in the supermarket are either lactose-free or are great substitutes for milk products.

Many dairy products, including yogurt, milk, ice cream, and spreads, are available in lactose-free versions. Be sure to read labels in the dairy and freezer sections to find lactose-free varieties of your favorites. Soy products are popular substitutes. You can also experiment with milk, spreads, yogurt, ice cream, and other products made from almonds, rice, soy, coconut or other nuts and seeds.

Be careful, because milk products and lactose are often found in foods where you might not expect them, such as breads and baked goods; cereals and breakfast drink mixes; instant potatoes and soups; margarine; non-kosher lunchmeat; salad dressing; and pancake, biscuit, and cookie mixes. In addition to milk and lactose, words to watch out for on ingredient lists are whey, curds, milk byproducts, dry milk solids, and non-fat dry milk powder.

There are over-the-counter products available that you can take prior to eating to mitigate the effects of lactose intolerance. And some studies have linked the daily consumption of probiotics to an improvement in lactose digestion. Probiotics — live microorganisms believed to provide intestinal health benefits — are found in some yogurts, kefirs, and cottage cheese. Just be sure to check the labels for "live and active cultures." As always, listen to your body — especially after eating — and notice how you feel after consuming certain foods: your body is pretty clever and can tell you a lot!

There are plenty of alternatives for the lactose intolerant in the markets these days, so living lactose-free doesn't need to be stressful. In fact, it can actually be tasty and offer some interesting variety to your diet.