Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the body cannot properly digest lactose, a sugar. Lactose is commonly found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter. Lactose intolerance occurs when a person has a shortage of an enzyme known as lactase, which is produced in the small intestine and is responsible for breaking down lactose.
In recent decades, researchers have learned just how common lactose intolerance is. Almost all children are born with lactase enzymes, but the majority of the people in the world begin to lose these enzymes after they are weaned off breast milk.
Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
People who are lactose intolerant typically begin to experience symptoms 30 minutes to two hours after ingesting dairy products. Symptoms often include gassiness, abdominal bloating and pain, nausea and diarrhea. The severity and nature of the symptoms depend on the severity of the condition and can vary widely from person to person.
Most people with lactose intolerance can handle small amounts of dairy, so a common early approach is to consume a small portion of dairy along with other foods in a meal to determine what the body can and can’t handle. For many, dairy products that are lower in lactose, such as yogurt and hard cheeses, are better tolerated than high-lactose foods like milk.
For those with severe lactose intolerance, the primary concern is getting enough calcium, which is one of the main nutrients that dairy provides in abundance. However, many other foods contain calcium, and many cereals, pastas, breads and juices are fortified with calcium. A supplement is also an option, though it’s best to consult with a doctor about whether taking calcium would be a good idea.
Today, many lactose-free dairy alternatives are available, including soy-based and rice-based dairy products, allowing those who are lactose intolerant to enjoy dairy without symptoms.
SOURCES: U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine