One of the most common misconceptions about lactose intolerance is that it is a milk allergy. Though the two are often confused, the difference is a critical one.
The inability to completely digest lactose rarely translates into the need for a milk-free diet. But if you have a milk allergy, even minute amounts can trigger a serious reaction. Symptoms of a true milk allergy include a runny nose, puffy eyes, skin rash, vomiting, tightness in the throat, and difficulty breathing. There is no connection between having a milk allergy, which is due to an immune response to a protein, and having lactose intolerance, which is an enzyme deficiency.
Lactose intolerance is most common in adults, whereas milk allergies are seen mostly in children. Essentially all children who develop a milk allergy develop it in their first year or so, and the vast majority will eventually outgrow it. In the end, very few people carry milk allergies with them into late childhood or adulthood.
Living with Lactose
Milk and other dairy products are a major source of nutrients in the diet. An important one that we generally turn to dairy foods to provide is calcium. So, if you cut back on foods high in lactose, you may not meet your needs for calcium and other nutrients.
Fortunately, most people who are lactose deficient don't have to completely cut dairy foods from their diets. In fact, it's been estimated that about 80 percent of people with lactose intolerance are still able to drink enough milk for good nutrition. Many people can drink a cup of milk with a meal without any problems. Drinking milk with other foods slows its digestion and allows the body more time to digest the lactose. Recent research shows that regular intake of lactose may even improve tolerance over time.
Another way to get plenty of bone-building calcium and other nutrients is with lactose-reduced milk, available in the milk case at most groceries. Or you can try lactase-enzyme supplements. Available as over-the-counter caplets or chewable tablets, these supplements are taken along with dairy food.
Also available are lactase-enzyme drops that you add to regular milk to predigest the milk's lactose before you drink it (keep in mind, however, that you must add the drops 24 hours in advance of drinking the milk to give the drops time to work).
Just how diligent you must be in avoiding lactose depends entirely on how sensitive you are. But here are a few tips that may help you minimize your lactose problems.
- Give yogurt a try. Many people who suffer lactose intolerance are better able to tolerate yogurt. Yogurts labeled as containing "live active cultures" contain friendly bacteria that help digest lactose. Yogurt is also a good source of calcium.
- Drink chocolate milk. The calcium in chocolate milk is just as well absorbed as that in regular milk, and you may tolerate flavored milk better than plain.
- You may be better able to tolerate aged hard cheeses such as cheddar, Colby, Swiss, and Parmesan. These cheeses contain little lactose compared with milk and softer cheeses because the whey, which contains most of the lactose, separates from the cheese during processing.
- Try drinking milk with your meals, instead of on its own, and drink smaller amounts of milk throughout the day. If you can't tolerate a whole cup of milk at one sitting, you might do just fine having half cup with your breakfast and another half cup with your evening meal.
- Be aware that lactose is also found in some prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs as an "inactive ingredient." Check labels and/or consult your pharmacist. If there are other suitable medications available that don't contain lactose fillers, you may want to consider switching, but you'll need to discuss this possibility with your doctor first, especially for prescription medications or any nonprescription drugs you need to take on a regular basis.
- Some nondairy foods that may contain lactose include breads, frozen vegetables, soups, salad dressings, cereals, breakfast drinks, cake mixes, and candies. Scan the ingredient lists of these types of products for milk, milk solids, whey, curds, and cheese as clues that lactose is lurking in them.
- Treat buttermilk and acidophilus milk the same as regular milk. They contain lactose, and contrary to what you may have heard before, they are generally no better tolerated than regular milk.
- Fat slows the passage of lactose through your digestive system, giving your body more time to work on digesting it. So if you have trouble tolerating skim milk but don't want all the fat and calories from whole milk, try drinking one percent or two percent milk instead.
Living with lactose intolerance doesn't have to mean you permanently can't drink milk. With proper planning and precaution, many lactose intolerance sufferers can enjoy the foods they want to eat.
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This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.