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When Milk is Not Your Friend: Living with Lactose Intolerance

By Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP February 13, 2018Pearls of Wisdom Blog

Do you ever suffer with gas, bloating, belly pain and/or diarrhea after eating or drinking something made with milk? If you answered yes then you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 60% of people have problems digesting lactose, the sugar found in milk. Lactose intolerance happens when your small intestine doesn’t make enough of an enzyme called lactase to break down the lactose into simple forms of sugars that are easier to absorb.

Lactose intolerance is not life-threatening but can be an extremely uncomfortable condition. Symptoms of gastrointestinal distress usually occur 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming lactose and can range from very mild to more severe. People with mild symptoms may not even realize they have this condition. The most concerning risk with having lactose intolerance is that you can become deficient in calcium and vitamin D if you eliminate milk from your diet. Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy, which is an immune response to the protein in milk and can be life-threatening.

Many people have a genetic tendency for developing lactose intolerance as an adult. It commonly runs in families so if one or more of your family members has it, then you’re more likely to have it.  It occurs more frequently in certain ethnic and racial groups such as African, Asian, Native American and Jewish populations. People can also develop lactose intolerance after there is damage or an alteration to the small intestine which can occur as the result of an intestinal infection or disease, chemotherapy, abdominal/pelvic radiation and some gastrointestinal surgeries. It can be a permanent or temporary condition.

Guidelines for Living with LACTOSE Intolerance

Look at the ingredients on all food, beverage and medication labels. Lactose will be listed as milk and milk products, casein, curds and/or whey.

Avoid those products containing lactose and be aware that lactose can be hidden in foods you wouldn’t expect, such as hot dogs, medications and candies.

Create a daily food diary to target foods that cause you problems. Some foods like yogurt and hard cheeses are lower in lactose and may not bother you.

Take an oral lactase supplement like Lactaid* or a generic version before consuming products containing lactose. Ask your pharmacist for a recommendation.

Order your restaurant meals without cheeses and cream based sauces. Ask questions if you are unsure of the lactose content. Make sure that anyone cooking meals for you is aware of your dietary restrictions.

Substitute plant-based milks in place of cow’s milk. Soy, rice, coconut, almond and other nut milks and ice creams are sold at most grocery stores. Many of these alternative milks are also available at coffee shops to enjoy in your favorite lattes.

Eat and drink nondairy foods and beverages that contain good sources of calcium. These include green vegetables, some beans, fish, and orange juice with added calcium. There are also lactose free milks and ice cream that can be purchased.


Eat Confidently with Lactose Intolerance

Lactose Intolerance (NIDDK)

Nutrition Tips for Managing Lactose Intolerance


*PearlPoint Cancer Support does not endorse any commercial products or services. Mention is for informational purposes only.

Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Author Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Complex GI Cancer Nurse Navigator with Sarah Cannon Institute at Medical City Healthcare Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP is a nurse navigator specializing in complex GI health at Sarah Cannon at Medical City Plano in Plano, TX. She is also a certified chronic care professional health coach and enjoys educating patients and families.

More posts by Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

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