Are You Lactose Intolerant?

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If dairy foods don't agree with you, you may have trouble digesting lactose, a sugar found in milk, butter, ice cream, cheese, and other foods made from milk and cream.

The Missing Enzyme

Your small intestine needs lactase, an enzyme, to break down lactose. Lack of this enzyme can result in gas, bloating, diarrhea, and even bad breath.

But while lactose intolerance, as this condition is called, can be bothersome and uncomfortable, it's fairly easy to manage.

Lactose intolerance is a common disorder. Except for those of northern European descent, many adults--especially Asian Americans, African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos--have some trouble digesting milk and milk products.

In addition, people with small intestine damage resulting from infections, celiac or Crohn's disease, or surgery are more likely to have trouble with dairy. Although the problem can start at any time, it is less common in infants.

Diagnosis & Management

A simple test for lactose intolerance is to exclude all dairy from your diet for three days, then drink a glass or two of milk first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. If you experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, or stomach cramps, you may be lactose intolerant. Confirm your suspicions with your healthcare provider, who might do a breath test that involves drinking something sweet which contains lactose.

Fortunately, most people with this condition don't have to swear off dairy completely. You may be able to have a half-cup of milk on your cereal or with your meals. Recent studies suggest that gradually increasing dairy in your diet may improve your tolerance. Yogurt and aged cheeses (such as Swiss, sharp cheddar, Edam, or Jarlsberg) may be more easily digested, since they contain lactase-producing bacteria that reduce lactose content.

Some people use over-the-counter products that help them to digest milk, or they purchase lactose-free milk.

Getting Enough Calcium?

If you must avoid dairy, get the calcium your bones and teeth need from other sources. Canned salmon or sardines, broccoli and leafy green veggies, soymilk and tofu, almonds, dried beans, and orange juice with added calcium are all good sources.

Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, so look for foods with added D, or ask your healthcare provider if you should take a supplement.

Tip 1: Herbal Relief

When symptoms strike, try ginger or peppermint tea.

Tip 2: Read Labels

Some processed foods contain small amounts of lactose. These can include breads, cereals, soups, frozen waffles and pancakes, margarine, salad dressings, milk-based meal replacement drinks, nondairy toppings and coffee creamers, and prepared meats.

On labels, watch out for these words: lactose, whey, curds, dry milk solids, and nonfat dry milk powder.