Eating a Healthy Diet With Lactose Intolerance

Milk. It does a body good.

Unless it doesn't, that is.

While milk is an excellent source of calcium and protein, up to 75 percent of the world's population cannot properly digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. When they try, the result is tummy trouble that can range from mild discomfort to severe pain.

Not drinking milk to appease a sensitive stomach is one option, but the calcium found in milk is essential to good health and a major building block for bones and teeth. It also helps your heart to beat, your muscles to contract (and relax) and your blood to clot.

So what should a person with milk sensitivity do?

Understanding Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance happens when your digestive system lacks the enzyme lactase, which it needs to break down milk sugar (lactose) into simpler forms that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. When the milk sugar is not broken down and absorbed properly, additional water is drawn into the intestinal tract. There, the healthy bacteria found in the intestine ferment the sugar, resulting in symptoms that range in intensity from very mild to severe and usually begin 30 minutes to two hours after eating dairy. Gas, nausea, bloating, cramping and diarrhea are the most common symptoms. Lactose intolerance is a matter of degree; some people fall ill after drinking an entire glass of milk, while others would be sick after drinking a small sip.

Production of that important enzyme lactase slows down after age two, but most people don't notice symptoms until they are significantly older. Conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease can also lead to lactose intolerance. Certain medications or illnesses, such as the flu, can cause temporary lactose intolerance, too.

Caucasians of northern European descent have the lowest incidence of lactose intolerance (about 15 percent). In contrast, up to 90 percent of Eastern Asians, 80 percent of American Indians, 65 percent of Africans and African-Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics have some degree of lactose intolerance, according to Harvard Medical School. Because lactase levels increase during the third trimester of pregnancy, premature infants of all ethnicities at a greater risk of developing the condition.

Today, what is commonly called lactose intolerance is referred to as "lactose maldigestion" by many health professionals. Only a small fraction of people with lactose maldigestion have true intolerance. Most lactose maldigesters are fine unless they eat more than a single serving of dairy products at one sitting. Many people with lower levels of lactase can actually drink up to one cup of milk with a meal without any problems.
Lactose Intolerance vs. Dairy Allergies: What's the Difference?
Please note that the recommendations in this article are for people with lactose intolerance, not dairy allergies. Lactose intolerance is not the same as a dairy allergy, though they share certain symptoms. Lactose intolerance is a digestive problem, while the immune system triggers serious reactions in people with dairy allergies.

A dairy allergy is an adverse reaction to one or both milk proteins: casein and whey. The body produces antibodies against the proteins, causing rejection. Allergies can result in hives, headaches, eczema, congestion and even respiratory distress, in addition to the gastrointestinal symptoms shared with lactose intolerance. You can only manage dairy allergies with a complete avoidance of dairy; continued consumption of dairy can exacerbate an allergy.

It is very important to get a medical diagnosis if you think you may be lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy products. Other serious health problems have similar symptoms to dairy allergies and intolerances, so avoid self-diagnosis.

Enjoying Dairy Products

Most cases of lactose intolerance are easy to manage. These tips will help you keep the dairy and ditch the pain:
  • Start with a small portion of milk. Slowly increase the serving size of the milk and other milk products you eat. Monitor when symptoms develop. Learn your own limits for how much lactose you can handle at one sitting.
  • Drink milk with other foods and never on an empty stomach. Solid foods will slow digestion and allow your body more time to digest the lactose, which helps to prevent symptoms.
  • Say cheese, please. When milk is made into cheese, most of the lactose is removed. Aged hard cheeses, such as cheddar, Colby, Swiss and parmesan, are particularly low in lactose, and therefore more easily tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.
  • Enjoy yogurt with live, active bacterial cultures. The bacteria in many brands of yogurt provide their own lactose-digesting enzymes and continue to digest the lactose even further once inside your digestive tract. Let the yogurt sit at room temperature for a half-hour before eating it; these healthy bacteria are inactive at refrigerator temperatures.
  • Purchase reduced-lactose or lactose-free milk in the dairy case. It is an added expense, but it does contain all the same nutrients of regular milk, in a more digestible form.
  • Lactase enzyme drops are also available at the pharmacy. You can add these drops to milk to break down the lactose.
  • Dairy digestive supplements or lactase caplets are also available at the pharmacy. Take them according to instructions just before enjoying dairy foods and will help you digest the lactose more easily.
Hidden Sources of Lactose
If you are severely sensitive to lactose, beware of these hidden sources of lactose:
  • Bread and baked goods
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Instant potatoes, soups and breakfast drinks
  • Margarine
  • Lunch meats (non-kosher)
  • Salad dressings
  • Candies and snacks
  • Mixes for pancakes, biscuits, and cookies
  • Milk chocolate

Getting Your Calcium Without Dairy

Learning to understand and manage lactose intolerance makes it easier to get adequate calcium and even—in some cases—eat small amounts of certain dairy foods (see "Enjoying Dairy" below).

Because milk products are such a significant source of calcium in most diets, simply removing them can put you at risk for inadequate calcium intake (and the health problems that come with it). If you simply remove milk from your diet, it needs to be replaced with non-dairy sources of calcium, as adults need 1,000-1,200 milligrams of calcium a day.

These days, there are plenty of dairy replacements on the market. The most common dairy analog is soy, and there is a soy version of every dairy product, from yogurt to cheese. Liquid milk replacements are plentiful and diverse: Try soy, almond, oat, rice or hemp milk, which you can use over cereal, when baking and in pretty much any way you would use dairy milk. Experiment with brands until you find one you like. You'll most likely find these alternatives in health food stores (or in the health food section of your grocery store). Look for them near other dairy products. Be sure to read labels, selecting only calcium-fortified versions of these non-dairy foods. Choose a milk with 30 percent of your daily calcium needs in a 1-cup serving, frozen desserts with at least 15 percent of your daily calcium in a half-cup serving and non-dairy cheeses with about 20 percent in a 1-ounce portion to be comparable in nutrition to real milk.

If you are still having trouble meeting your calcium needs, follow the advice from your physician about taking an additional calcium supplement. Remember:
  • A typical multivitamin supplement contains about a third or less of your daily calcium needs (approximately 200-300 milligrams).
  • Look for a supplement made from calcium carbonate or calcium citrate for best absorption.
  • Avoid supplements made with bone meal, dolomite, unrefined oyster shell or coral calcium. These supplements may contain lead or other contaminates.
  • Do not take more than 500 milligrams of calcium at a time. Your body uses calcium better when you take the supplement in smaller doses throughout the day; it can only absorb so much calcium at once.
  • Ask your doctor how to stagger your doses if you also take iron supplements or the antibiotic tetracycline because calcium can impede their absorption.
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Member Comments

thanks Report
The reason most people of the world are lactose intolerant is because milk is for babies; to fatten them up an help them get bigger. Isn't that what it does to you? make you not only sick but bigger? Cow milk is for baby cows, horse milk is for baby horses, etc. You can't get milk from an animal unless it had a baby (same with your body). Report
Thank you for some great ideas Report
Milk is for baby cows...not people. Report
Article is old and could be updated and brought up to modern times.
Please. Report
Great Report
Just so you know, about 75% of Jewish people of European descent are lactose intolerant. Also people whose heritage is Greek, Italian, and predominantly Arab countries, although not as high a percentage. Might want to clarify that in your article, since we are also considered Caucasian. Report
Great info since I have a DIL who is lactose intolerant. Report
Tysm for the info, although most of it I've read numerous times in past years. I am truly lactose intolerant and have been for MANY years, especially when I was expecting my twins--both of whom are also now lactose intolerant.
Perhaps SP nutrition analyzers should take this into account when they constantly tell me that I have not consumed enough Ca for the day when they see that I ALWAYS substitute almond, coconut or cashew for regular milk, etc. What's the point of doing a profile if the meal plan constantly includes foods/items that your system doesn't tolerate?
Again, thank you for the excellent article. Report
Great to know info! Thanks for sharing this one!!!! Report
Good need-to-know information! Report
I hope you crush all your goals today! Report
thank you Report
I have a dairy allergy & manage fine without it altho there are now lots of alternate products that wasn't always the case. I appreciate especially the coconut options. Calcium is tricky and most people need more magnesium so I take the two together then get my potassium in food. Taking minerals later in the day is best; vitamins esp the Bs in the morning so they don't keep you awake. The dairy industry has many people who need jobs. That's why you can't order a sandwich or burger anymore w/out having to say, pls hold the cheese. Pizza & tacos are cheap & have lots of cheese. I don't think it's only sugar that has made us fat; it's cheese & bacon on everything us desserts are typically cheesecake or something served w/ ice cream when you eat out. Dairy is invasive & unnecessary if not downright unhealthy. If 1 in every 4 or 5 people can't eat a certain food maybe our body doesn't recognise that substance as nourishment? Kind of like those pet food ads where the owners recognize they've been feeding their dogs filler & not meat. We are not calves. Report


About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.