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Sharp Health News

Understanding lactose intolerance

Aug. 10, 2016

Understanding lactose intolerance

Humans remain the only species on earth to drink milk after they leave babyhood and yet, most can't even do that. Roughly 75 percent of the world's population has a lower ability to digest lactose right after infancy. This percentage grows higher among people of African and Mediterranean descent, as well as Native Americans and Asians.

More than a simple aversion to milk, lactose intolerance involves a much more complicated explanation.

"Milk contains a sugar called lactose, and when an individual is lactose intolerant, they are unable to fully digest those sugars when eating or drinking dairy products," says Heather O'Gorman, health coach and behavior change expert for Sharp Health Plan's Best Health team. "This can cause very uncomfortable digestive issues, such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, gas and bloating after consuming dairy products."

O'Gorman recommends making an appointment with a doctor if you notice that you have digestive symptoms after consuming dairy products. "Your doctor will want to know what the symptoms are and when they arise, so keep a daily journal of all the dairy foods that you are eating, including when you eat them and what symptoms you notice." She also suggests you may want to try eliminating dairy products from your diet for a couple of days to see if symptoms improve.

If you do receive a lactose intolerance diagnosis, fear not. For every dairy product on the market, you can find a non-dairy alternative. The following chart provides some suggestions:

Just say no

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the recommended daily dietary amount of dairy is 3 cups, for people over age nine. This proves difficult when lactose makes you queasy.

The following tips may work for you with the approval of your doctor:

  • Take lactase enzyme supplements just before eating dairy. This may help relieve stomach pain.
  • If you can't give up cheese, try only eating hard cheeses that are naturally lower in lactose.
  • Take probiotics in pill form, which can help you digest dairy easier.

Lactose intolerance means you need to get a little more creative in your diet. You don't have to deny yourself some of life's great eating pleasures — just find them in a different form.

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