February is Lactose Intolerance Awareness Month, a time dedicated to educating people about a condition that is often misunderstood. What many individuals don’t realize is that a person can have lactose intolerance and still enjoy the taste and nutritional benefits of dairy foods. A primary goal for Lactose Intolerance Awareness Month is to deliver this message: Lactose intolerance doesn’t have to mean dairy avoidance.
According to an expert panel convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to examine lactose intolerance and health, eliminating dairy foods may not only be unnecessary to manage lactose intolerance, but also may lead to nutrient shortcomings which may result in adverse health effects. Many health professionals, as well as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, encourage individuals with lactose intolerance to choose dairy foods first as a key source of essential nutrients, including those of most concern: calcium, potassium and vitamin D.
Lactose is the sugar naturally found in milk and many milk products. In order to digest lactose, the body needs lactase, an enzyme that is made by the body. Lactose intolerance occurs when a person does not make enough lactase to break down lactose, which may cause them to experience physical symptoms when consuming foods that contain lactose.
It is important to consult a doctor if a person perceives they are lactose intolerant. Often, a doctor will order a breath hydrogen test, which is considered the “gold standard” for diagnosis. Self-diagnosis is not recommended as it can lead to an unnecessary restriction of dairy foods, an inadequate intake of dairy’s nutrients, and a missed opportunity to detect other manageable disorders characterized by similar symptoms (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, milk protein allergy).
Because tolerance for lactose varies from person to person, lactose intolerance is a highly individualized condition. A person should talk to their doctor or a registered dietitian about a management approach that best suits him or her. Here are some practical tips that may be recommended:
• Sip It. Start with a small amount of milk daily and increase slowly over several days or weeks to tolerance.
• Stir It. Mix milk with other foods, such as smoothies, soups or sauces, or pair it with meals. This helps give your body more time to digest it.
• Slice It. Top sandwiches or crackers with natural cheeses such as Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella and Swiss. These cheeses are low in lactose.