Your dairy options if lactose intolerant

Milk is a great source of nine essential nutrients – including protein, calcium, and vitamin D – for all stages of life. But what happens if you are lactose intolerant? I never gave this any thought until talking with a friend who mentioned she couldn’t drink regular milk because of an intolerance.

Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk and dairy foods. Our body has the enzyme lactase, which it uses to break down those sugars. People who have a sensitivity or an intolerance to dairy usually don’t produce enough lactase to break down or absorb lactose properly. If they eat dairy, the result may include gas, bloating, or stomach pains. 

Just because your body can’t digest lactose doesn’t mean the dairy aisle is off-limits. One option is to buy lactose-free milk. Lactose-free milk is real dairy that doesn’t have lactose but does have all the essential nutrients found in regular milk products. When processed, the enzyme lactase is added during pasteurization. This breaks down the lactose to glucose and galactose before milk is added to the carton, so your body doesn’t have to do that work. 

You may also be able to enjoy other dairy products.  Due to the steps in cheesemaking and the natural aging process (shown in the photo above), natural cheeses like cheddar, Colby, Monterrey Jack, mozzarella, and Swiss are low in lactose. Try adding a slice of natural cheese to a burger, cracker, or sandwich. The same cheese can be shredded for salads, tacos, or other foods. 

Mixing dairy foods with other food items is another way you may be able to enjoy dairy. Solid foods slow digestion giving your body more time to digest lactose, so drinking milk with your meal or enjoying it with cereal may help.

Another option for people with lactose intolerance is yogurt.  All yogurt contains live and active cultures which help digest the lactose, making it easier to tolerate. Greek yogurt has less lactose because the straining process, which creates its thicker texture, removes some of the lactose. 

Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy. People who are allergic to milk have an abnormal response to the protein in milk and milk products. Symptoms can range from wheezing to hives, vomiting, and digestive issues. Milk allergies are usually seen in young kids and many outgrow it by their third birthday. Someone with a milk allergy should avoid all milk and milk products.

If you are concerned about lactose sensitivity or a milk allergy, consult a physician and a registered dietitian (RD).  The symptoms of both can mimic many health issues so this isn’t the time to self-diagnose. Visiting with an RD is important because if you remove dairy from your diet, you need to make sure your body is still getting the nutrients milk and milk products would have supplied.

If you are lactose intolerant, you may be able to work small amounts of dairy into your meals or choose dairy foods with minimal lactose. Then, gradually increase the portion size to find your comfort level. Also look for lactose-free products.

It’s exciting to see so many options in the dairy aisle for people who are sensitive to lactose. This is one more way the industry is changing to meet the needs of consumers like my friend, so they can enjoy milk and milk products. 

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