The scoop on lactose intolerance

Dairy products, other foods cause discomfort for many

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— After drinking milk or eating dairy products, do you suffer from gas, nausea, bloating, cramps or diarrhea? If so, you might be lactose intolerant.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance usually occur 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking foods containing lactose. Lactose is the sugar that is found in milk and dairy products. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose into simple sugars so that lactose can be absorbed into the blood stream. If you have a shortage of lactase in your body, some of the lactose remains in the intestine instead of being digested. Bacteria in the large intestine cause the lactose to ferment, causing gas, cramping and/or diarrhea.

Between 30 million and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. This condition develops naturally over time. Lactase deficiency is most commonly seen in people of African, Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Mediterranean descent.

There are certain tests doctors use to diagnose the condition. When lactose is absorbed into the blood stream, it is broken down into glucose.

The lactose tolerance test involves drinking a liquid that contains lactose and then measuring blood levels of glucose. If you suspect you are lactose intolerant, you may want to discuss it with your doctor.

Most people do not need to abstain completely from foods containing lactose.

However, limiting products with lactose may help improve symptoms. Read food labels to identify sources of lactose. These include milk, milk solids, whey, lactose, curds, nonfat milk powder or solids, sweet/sour cream, buttermilk and malted milk.

Additional possible food sources of lactose are breads, candy, cookies, cold cuts, hot dogs, processed meats, sauces, gravies, dessert mixes, cream soups, ready-to-eat cereals, frostings, chocolate drink mixes, salad dressing, sugar substitutes and medications.

People with severe lactose intolerance need to be aware of medications that contain lactose. Your pharmacist can provide you with information on lactose-free medications.

Dairy products can be consumed depending on individual tolerance determined through trial and error. You may have symptoms of intolerance after drinking a small amount of milk, and another person with lactose intolerance may be able to tolerate one cup, but not two. Some may be able to tolerate ice cream and aged cheese but no other dairy products.

Many people can withstand two cups of milk daily if taken in divided doses at breakfast and dinner. Natural aged or ripened cheeses such as Swiss and cheddar contain little lactose. Yogurts with live and active cultures are usually better tolerated than milk.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance usually subside after three to five days on a lactose-controlled diet. Including small portions of milk and other lactose-containing foods in your diet may actually improve tolerance to lactose.

For those who react to small amounts of lactose, plant-based beverages such as soy and rice milk may be the answer. Lactose-reduced and lactose-free milk is available in the dairy section of most grocery stores. Lactase enzyme drops can be added to milk or chewable lactase enzyme tablets can be taken with meals containing lactose. These drops or tablets are available without a prescription and are usually found in the stomach remedy section of supermarkets and drugstores.

Lactose intolerance does not affect the absorption of calcium, an important bone-building and bone-sustaining mineral. Because dairy products are an ideal source of calcium, determining your personal lactose tolerance level is an important step toward optimal health.

Carol Mahoney is a registered dietitian with Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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