If you suspect that you are suffering from lactose intolerance, you should consult with your primary care physician or another health professional to make sure you consume enough nutrients while managing your diet to avoid uncomfortable digestive symptoms. Over half of the world’s population suffers from lactose malabsorption, the condition behind lactose intolerance. Though dairy, and thus lactose, seems to be lurking within some unexpected foods—such as lunch meat and margarine—with careful attention to ingredient lists it’s possible to stay free of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.
What Is Lactose Intolerance?
Those that suffer from lactose intolerance experience a range of digestive system symptoms, such as diarrhea, gas, and bloating, after consuming foods that contain lactose. Lactose itself is a type of sugar found in dairy products such as milk, cheese, and ice cream.
The negative reaction to lactose is down to a condition called lactose malabsorption, caused by the small intestine’s inability to break down the lactose in dairy foods. Different people have different levels of lactose tolerance, as their bodies are able to process varying levels of lactose. Not everyone who has lactose malabsorption experiences the digestive symptoms that characterize lactose intolerance, and it’s only people who do show some level of adverse digestive reaction who are considered lactose intolerant.
Experts suggest that about 68 percent of the world’s total population experience lactose malabsorption. In the United States, 38 percent of people are estimated to have the condition. Lactose malabsorption is more common in certain parts of the world. For example, in Africa and Eastern Asia lactose malabsorption is more common than in northern Europe. Within the United States, the communities most likely to have lactose malabsorption and to display the symptoms of lactose intolerance are African Americans, Indigenous people, East Asian Americans, and Latin Americans.
Lactose Intolerance Symptoms
For lactose intolerance to be diagnosed, symptoms of the digestive system must be experienced. All of the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance are associated with the digestive system. Some people also suffer from a milk allergy which is not the same thing as lactose intolerance. A milk allergy is a disorder of the immune system, not the digestive system.
- Diarrhea. Consuming dairy as a person that experiences lactose intolerance could lead to excess time spent in the bathroom with diarrhea. When experiencing diarrhea it is important to drink plenty of water, because the fluid loss can lead to dehydration, which can be lethal. Young children, elderly adults, and those with weakened immune systems should be especially cautious.
- Gas. Though not frequently considered a serious health problem by itself, excessive flatulence can lead to embarrassing situations and is frequently experienced alongside other symptoms such as pain in the abdomen and bloating.
- Bloating. A very common symptom of lactose intolerance is bloating, which is when the belly is filled with gas, causing a distended stomach. It may be associated with some discomfort, not just because of the gas but also because of the full stomach making clothing feel less comfortable.
- Stomach pain. Eating lactose when one is lactose intolerant can lead to pain in the stomach and abdomen.
- Stomach cramps. Another common symptom of lactose intolerance is stomach cramps. Though often not a serious health risk, they can be very uncomfortable.
Can Lactose Intolerance Go Away?
Sometimes lactose intolerance is due to an underlying condition, so when this is treated the symptoms resolve. In most cases, however, lactose intolerance is not treatable and is best managed by reducing, or eliminating, the lactose in one’s diet. If you suspect you may be suffering from lactose intolerance, you should consult with a physician to determine whether there is an underlying condition present and, if not, determine a management plan that enables you to get all the nutrients you need while avoiding discomfort.
How Does Lactose Intolerance Affect Dietary Intake?
For most people suffering from lactose intolerance, omitting certain foods and substituting others is an effective way of managing the condition. For example, choosing a plant-based milk such as oat or soy milk allows you to consume your cookies and cereal with milk without having to experience the side effects associated with dairy. However, opting out of dairy products is often not enough, as lactose has made its way into a vast array of foods that one might not expect. Being cautious and checking the ingredients of a new product helps to make sure you aren’t inadvertently eating dairy.
Foods to Avoid If You Are Lactose Intolerant
- Bread and baked goods. Bread and other baked goods frequently contain lactose. This is especially true for options with icings.
- Milk chocolate and some candies. Most chocolate, whether milk or dark, tends to contain some amount of dairy and thus lactose. Looking for bars or options labeled as dairy-free or vegan can be a good way of avoiding lactose. For those who need a chocolate fix, popular food chain Trader Joe’s has several vegan chocolate options including a bar made with almond milk. For those who crave fruity candies, there are numerous options that are lactose-free including Sour Patch Kids.
- Salad dressings and sauces. Many popular salad dressings such as ranch and blue cheese contain dairy. Thankfully most have substitutes that omit dairy while maintaining the flavor of the old favorites. If looking for an Italian or Greek dressing, be sure to choose one that does not contain any parmesan or other cheese.
- Breakfast cereals and cereal bars. As with all foods, the best line of defense against dairy in cereal and cereal bars is simply to check the label for ingredients sourced from dairy. There are a variety of cereals that do not contain lactose.
- Instant potatoes, soups, rice, and noodle mixes. You should be cautious of processed foods when avoiding lactose. Thankfully, those that do contain dairy are required to say so clearly as part of the nutrition label.
- Lunch meats. Lactose is frequently added to lunch meats to act as an emulsifier. Checking the label carefully or opting for alternatives may be a good idea.
- Cheese-flavored crackers and other snacks. Most cheese-flavored crackers and snacks contain dairy or cheese. Checking the label or opting for vegan options is a good way of avoiding lactose when shopping for snack foods.
- Mixes for pancakes, biscuits, and cookies. Though there are a number of dairy-free baking mixes, it is always best to check the label when reaching for a new product, as many do contain dairy.
- Margarine and butter. Though it is commonly thought that margarine is dairy-free, many brands do actually contain whey, a milk derivative. Checking the label carefully or reaching for plant-based butters is a good way of avoiding lactose.
- Organ meats (such as liver). Organ meats, such as liver, can contain lactose and should be avoided.
- Sugar beets, peas, lima beans. Small amounts of lactose can be found in these foods and thus they should be avoided by those with the greatest sensitivity.
- Certain coffee creamers. Checking the label on coffee creamers is always wise, as many contain lactose.
How Do I Know if Processed Foods Contain Lactose?
There are a variety of ingredients to look out for when cutting lactose from one’s diet, as dairy has been processed into a vast array of ingredients. Within the United States, foods containing common allergens such as milk must be labeled. These foods must either print the dairy item in bold within the ingredient list, or underneath the ingredient list say “contains:” followed by the allergen—so, in the case of milk, “contains: milk”. Additives and ingredients to be cautious of include:
- Milk by-products
- Dry milk solids
- Nonfat dry milk
- Dry milk powder
Get Enough Calcium and Vitamin D
Thankfully, there are a variety of foods, other than dairy, that can provide ample amounts of calcium and vitamin D. When these foods are consumed as part of our routine diet, there is often little concern over omitting dairy.
- Spinach. This delicious and versatile leafy green contains about 30 milligrams of calcium per cup.
- Calcium-fortified orange juice. One 8-ounce glass of Minute Maid fortified orange juice contains 25 percent of your daily calcium and 15 percent of your daily vitamin D.
- Raw broccoli. Broccoli packs a punch when it comes to overall nutrients. Frequently consuming it as part of a healthy diet can also help ensure one is eating enough calcium since one cup of raw broccoli contains 2 percent of your daily requirement.
- Calcium-fortified soy milk. Silk’s original soy milk provides 30 percent of your daily calcium and 15 percent of your vitamin D in a one-cup serving.
- Dark green leafy vegetables. Including a variety of leafy green vegetables in one’s diet is a great way to ensure that you’re getting plenty of vitamin D and calcium.
- Almonds. Consuming just one ounce of almonds provides about 6 percent of your recommended daily calcium.
Lactose-Free Diet Plan
Adopting a diet free of lactose may seem daunting at first, as dairy products play a large role in many of our diets. However, taking the time to check labels and reaching for items marked dairy-free, plant-based, or vegan can be a good way of getting started.
A day of eating lactose-free could still include any number of meals. You might choose a glass of oat milk with dairy-free chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, a dairy-free submarine sandwich with vegan ranch or hummus and veggies from Publix for lunch, a snack of fresh fruit, and a dinner consisting of cheesy vegan baked spaghetti.
What You Can Do
One of the best ways to ensure there are always plenty of options for those with lactose intolerance is to encourage the widespread introduction of plant-based food items by companies and restaurants. There are many campaigns through which you can take action to encourage public and private institutions to increase plant-based options. Having more plant-based and dairy- and egg-free options on menus means a better, more inclusive eating experience for millions of people.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.