As a big milk drinker (1-3 cups of skim per day) and an enthusiastic consumer of dairy products like cheese and yogurt, I have been doing some research on lactose intolerance. What is it? What does it mean? Can lactose intolerant people consume dairy? I was curious to find out how people who are sensitive to lactose can benefit from the nutrients found in dairy products.
The inability to digest and metabolize lactose—a sugar found in milk and dairy products—is caused by the body’s lack of an enzyme called lactase, which lives in the small intestine, and whose job it is to break down lactose before it enters the bloodstream. When one’s body is unable to break down the lactose, the lactose gets turned over to bacteria, which in turn breaks it down in a fermentation process—and fermentation means gas, and gas means discomfort.
Another reason I have been curious about this subject is personal: as a baby I was allergic to breast milk and had to be bottle-fed formula, but I grew out of it. As an adult I drink milk and consume dairy without discomfort. Today, I drink milk for a lot of reasons:
- I love it—I really do. I even drink it with pizza or pasta! I also love a glass before bedtime to keep late-night snacking in check.
- Calcium: I lift weights and drink milk to strengthen my bones. I also drink milk post-weight lifting to replace calories, vitamins, and minerals, as well as to reduce muscle soreness.
- Weight management: I drink fat-free (skim) milk and consume low-fat dairy products like cheese and yogurt as part of my regular diet to maintain a healthy weight.
Thinking about milk—and my abiding love of all things dairy—got me wondering about how I would deal with lactose intolerance. Would my diet and eating habits change dramatically? Are there ways to enjoy the nutritional benefits of dairy products when one is lactose intolerant?
According to the National Dairy Council, individuals who are lactose intolerant have options. Different people can handle different amounts of lactose; lactose-free products and dairy products that are naturally lower in lactose can help lactose intolerant people enjoy the health benefits of dairy without discomfort: there are lactose-free milk options on the market to help lactose intolerant people enjoy their daily glass of milk or bowl of breakfast cereal; aged cheeses have naturally lower levels of lactose; live, active cultures in yogurt can help the body better digest lactose.
If you are looking for more research on lactose intolerance, I recommend using the National Dairy Council’s Lactose Intolerance Facts resource page. There you will find handouts, fact sheets, podcasts, presentations, and numerous links to supporting science research on lactose intolerance and health.