When you’re lactose intolerant, enjoying a simple glass of milk or an ice-cream can wreak havoc on your insides. And it’s not just the usual dairy suspects causing grief – lactose lurks in many foods, from breads and biscuits to soups and salad dressings, making mealtimes a tricky task to navigate.
So, whether you’re a seasoned pro at handling your intolerance or just figuring it out, here’s what you need to know.
Soooo, what is lactose?
Simply, it’s a sugar that occurs naturally in dairy foods. Our bodies use an enzyme called lactase to help digest it and move it into the bloodstream.
But what causes intolerance?
If you’re intolerant, your body has stopped making lactase. This is actually normal – many people develop an intolerance in their 20s. An insufficient amount of lactase in your system means your body is unable to break down lactose properly.
What are the symptoms?
Lactose intolerant peeps digest lactose with bacteria in the intestine, instead. This is where the trouble occurs. After eating or drinking dairy products or other foods that contain dairy by-products, you may experience excessive gas, abdominal bloating, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps or nausea. These symptoms can have the effect of causing mild discomfort to debilitating pain. Not much fun.
Adjust your outlook
Being lactose intolerant poses quite a health dilemma. Since dairy is a rich source of essential calcium, eliminating it from your diet altogether puts bone health, as well as muscle and nerve function, at risk. What to do? Thankfully, a quiet food revolution has taken place in the past decade or so and lactose-free alternatives line the shelves at health food stores and supermarkets. While it’s never a walk in the park to have a food intolerance, it’s easier than ever to sidestep problem foods and enjoy the alternatives without missing a beat.
Not all foods with Iactose make me sick
Individual tolerance levels vary greatly. Some people can tolerate small amounts of lactose without suffering, while others can’t even nibble a choccie without experiencing pain. Unfortunately, trial and error is the only way to find out.
What is on the lactose high-alert list?
- Cow’s milk – whole, low-fat and skim – all contain the same amount of lactose
- Ice-cream and yoghurt
- Scrambled eggs (when made with milk or cheese)
- Soft cheeses such as ricotta, cottage and cream cheese
- Condensed milk
- Muesli bars
- Meal replacement shakes
Do I have to eliminate all dairy products?
Not necessarily. Hard cheeses, like cheddar, are low in lactose and can usually be tolerated. Some yoghurts contain enough live culture or natural bacteria to help break down lactose. Even people with a severe intolerance can usually drink about half a cup of milk with no problem. The trick is not to consume too much lactose at once. You can try combining it with another food that has no lactose – like having cheese with your crackers and wine!
Is there a test for it?
If you suspect you are lactose intolerant, don’t self-diagnose. See a doctor to rule out other issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, first. A hydrogen breath test or blood sugar test will confirm a diagnosis. You might be asked to eliminate all dairy from your diet for a brief period to see if symptoms improve, then slowly reintroduce them.
Read the labels!
Lactose hides in places you’d least expect it: bread, cake mixes, chips, bacon, sausages, pancakes and even non-dairy coffee creamer. If you’re highly intolerant, read the nutrition panels carefully and watch for the following sneaky ingredients:
- Dry milk solids
- Whey n Curds
- Milk sugar
- Milk by-products
- Non-fat dry milk powder
What else can I do?
- Lactase enzyme drops or chewable tablets can help. Find them at the pharmacy. Follow pack instructions.
- Cutting out dairy can mean missing out on calcium, so remember to boost your daily intake of calcium-rich foods (think salmon, kale and almonds) for a balanced diet.