If you’ve just discovered you suffer from lactose intolerance, it means the party’s over, right? You may be able to find another party, where no milk or dairy products of any kind are being served. But without butter, cheese, ice cream, pizza, yogurt and all those other delicious milk-based treats you love so much, that party figures to be a real dud. By the end of it you may wish you’d stayed home to read a book or catch up on all the episodes of that new Netflix series you’ve been dying to see. But take heart, because things aren’t so simple. Despite what you may have heard or assumed, lactose intolerance does not mean dairy products are automatically forbidden. Or that at least some dairy products are no-nos. Or that you must confine your dairy consumption to lactose-free milk products that may or may not taste as good as the original versions. The truth about lactose intolerance is more complex, and the good news is that the party can continue, just as long as smart planning and common sense are included on the guest list.
What Lactose Intolerance Is, and What It Isn’t
Did you know that up to 65 percent of the planet’s population may be afflicted with some degree of lactose intolerance? Well it’s true, and with this type of food sensitivity being so widespread it’s important to clarify exactly what we’re talking about when we say someone suffers from this condition. First, we need to understand that lactose intolerance is different from milk allergy, which only occurs in about 2.5 percent of the American population. People who suffer from a milk allergy have an instant and severe immune system response when they consume any type of dairy product; and if they do so accidentally, they may need to seek medical treatment immediately. But in the case of lactose intolerance, all the trouble takes place in the digestive system. This is where molecules of lactose are normally broken down into simpler sugars, in order to accommodate their absorption into the blood stream. Unfortunately, many of us are unable to produce adequate levels of the enzyme lactase, which governs this process, and when we eat or drink food products containing lactose, a portion of it may enter our large intestines still undigested. This creates an uncomfortable situation for the body and for the lactose-intolerant person, who may experience some painful and highly unpleasant side effects such as bloating, nausea, gas, cramping, diarrhea and persistent stomach pain. Onset of these symptoms generally occurs within two hours, and their intensity and duration will depend on how much lactose has been consumed. So as we can see, it is not lactose itself but the presence of too much lactose in the body that cause difficulty for the lactose-intolerant person. If you are lactose intolerant you can consume dairy products, but you’ll have to deal with limits that don’t apply to people whose digestive systems manufacture greater amounts of the necessary enzyme.
Keeping Dairy on the Menu
While it varies from person to person, studies suggest the average lactose-intolerant sufferer can consume up to 12 grams of this milk sugar compound in one day without experiencing problems. This amount is equal to one cup of low-fat milk, six ounces of low-fat yogurt, 18 ounces (!) of low-fat Greek yogurt, two cups of low-fat cottage cheese, and 12 ounces of hard, aged cheeses like sharp cheddar, parmesan or Swiss. And the news gets better: when milk products are eaten in combination with other foods, the digestive system will process the lactose more slowly, reducing enzyme workload and giving the lactase that is present a chance to stay ahead of the game. If you are lactose intolerant you will have to experiment a bit to discover your dairy limits. You will also need to play the role of educated consumer, reading labels with a magnifying glass and researching online to determine how much lactose your favorite dairy products contain. But after your investigation is complete you will still be left with plenty of delectable dairy options; and that doesn’t even include all the varieties of lactose-free/lactose-reduced milk, ice cream, cottage cheese and yogurt that have now hit the market, at least some of which may tickle your taste buds and leave you smiling like the proverbial Cheshire cat. Other exciting alternatives include rice, almond, soy or goat’s milk, plus the cheeses and yogurts made from these liquids, all of which are loaded with nutrients and quite flavorful in their own right.
Learning to Tolerate Lactose Intolerance
The smorgasbord of opportunities that exist for the lactose-intolerant person who still craves the taste of milk products is almost endless. And this is most definitely a good thing, since studies have found that 68 percent of all Americans are calcium deficient and 42 percent are vitamin D deficient. These disturbing nutritional facts explain why both the National Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health have recommended against the total elimination of dairy products from the diets of the lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is a serious health issue that causes real suffering, and it is not a condition to be taken lightly. But cutting all milk products out of your diet could be the nutritional equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If you are lactose intolerant, you will of course need to observe some restrictions, but this isn’t a bad thing since a diet overly saturated with dairy products wouldn’t be healthy anyway. Moderation is the key word here, as it so often is. If you pay attention to what your body is telling you and don’t push your digestive system out of its comfort zone, there is no reason milk products can’t continue to be a part of your life.