Understanding Lactose Intolerance

A young woman sees her doctor because of severe abdominal pain and cramps which occurred after she ate dairy foods. The doctor diagnosed her as being “lactose intolerant” and instructed her to avoid dairy foods… forever. As a result, she became vitamin D and calcium deficient as an adult.  A new doctor gave her hope and shared with her research and culinary tips on how to re-introduce dairy into her diet to correct these deficiencies.  Today she enjoys dairy foods daily with almost no symptoms.

Are you lactose intolerant? When milk and other dairy foods are consumed, the milk sugar (lactose) is broken down and absorbed in the digestive system. Lactose intolerance occurs when there is not enough of the enzyme (lactase), to digest all of the milk sugar present resulting in abdominal discomfort. When these symptoms occur after dairy foods are eaten, a physician may diagnosis you as “lactose intolerant”. But what your physician may fail to share is lactose intolerance does not mean avoiding dairy foods altogether.

In the United States, dairy foods are the main sources of calcium and vitamin D in our diet. Including three servings of milk, yogurt or cheese each day has been shown to help prevent diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and obesity as well as vitamin deficiencies; therefore eliminating dairy can have unintentional consequences. Just as one begins slowly when beginning a high fiber diet, the re-introduction of dairy foods should be a gradual process for someone who is lactose intolerant.  As a physician, I encourage you to know these 5 facts about lactose intolerance.  Begin with small amounts of low lactose containing foods such as easy to digest yogurt and natural cheeses with meals.  Then gradually add new foods like cottage cheese and 4 ounces of milk. You can also enjoy real dairy milk that is lactose –free or add some flavor with chocolate or strawberry milk. Don’t believe the myths that dairy is out if you are lactose Intolerant! I know that lactose intolerance does not mean dairy intolerance. Get more facts from our Lactose Intolerance page.  I did, for you see, the woman in this story is me.

Jeanette N. Keith, M.D. is a gastroenterologist who has specialized training in Clinical Nutrition. Her practice focus includes colon cancer prevention, GI disorders that affect obese patients, medical weight management, small bowel mucosal diseases, GI or nutritional concerns of the bariatric patient and general gastroenterology. Research interests include understanding and managing lactose intolerance as well as the management of GI/nutritional complications of bariatric surgery. She has a practice in Decatur, AL.