Lactose Intolerance (cont.)

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What are the sources of lactose in the diet?

Although milk and foods made from milk are the only natural sources of lactose, lactose often is "hidden" in prepared foods to which it has been added. People with very low tolerance for lactose should know about the many food products that may contain lactose, even in small amounts. Food products that may contain lactose include:

  • bread and other baked goods;
  • processed breakfast cereals;
  • instant potatoes, soups, and breakfast drinks;
  • margarine;
  • lunch meats (except those that are kosher);
  • salad dressings;
  • candies and other snacks; and
  • mixes for pancakes, biscuits, and cookies.

Some products labeled nondairy, such as powdered coffee creamer and whipped toppings, also may include ingredients that are derived from milk and, therefore, contain lactose.

Smart shoppers learn to read food labels with care, looking not only for milk and lactose in the contents but also for such words as whey, curds, milk by-products, dry milk solids, and nonfat dry milk powder. If any of these are listed on a label, the item contains lactose.

In addition to food sources, lactose can be "hidden" in medicines. Lactose is used as the base for many prescription and over-the-counter medications. Many types of birth control pills, for example, contain lactose, as do some tablets used for stomach acid and gas. However, these products typically affect only people with severe lactose intolerance because they contain such small amounts of lactose.

How is lactose intolerance treated?

Dietary changes

The most obvious means of treating lactose intolerance is by reducing the amount of lactose in the diet. Fortunately, most people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate small or even moderate amounts of lactose. It often takes only elimination of the major milk-containing products to obtain sufficient relief from their symptoms. Thus, it may be necessary to eliminate only milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and ice cream. Though yogurt contains large amounts of lactose, it often is well-tolerated by lactose intolerant people. This may be so because the bacteria used to make yogurt contain lactase, and the lactase is able to split some of the lactose during storage of the yogurt as well as after the yogurt is eaten (in the stomach and intestine). Yogurt also has been shown to empty more slowly from the stomach than an equivalent amount of milk. This allows more time for intestinal lactase to split the lactose in yogurt, and, at least theoretically, would result in less lactose reaching the colon.

Most supermarkets carry milk that has had the lactose already split by the addition of lactase. Substitutes for milk also are available, including soy and rice milk. Acidophilus-containing milk is not beneficial since it contains as much lactose as regular milk, and acidophilus bacteria do not split lactose.

For individuals who are intolerant to even small amounts of lactose, the dietary restrictions become more severe. Any purchased product containing milk must be avoided. It is especially important to eliminate prepared foods containing milk purchased from the supermarket and dishes from restaurants that have sauces.

Another means to reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance is to ingest any milk-containing foods during meals. Meals (particularly meals containing fat) reduce the rate at which the stomach empties into the small intestine. This reduces the rate at which lactose enters the small intestine and allows more time for the limited amount of lactase to split the lactose without being overwhelmed by the full load of lactose at once. Studies have shown that the absorption of lactose from whole milk, which contains fat, is greater than from non-fat milk, perhaps for this very reason. Nevertheless, the substitution of whole milk or yogurt for non-fat milk or yogurt does not seem to reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Lactase enzyme

Caplets or tablets of lactase are available to take with milk-containing foods.

Adaptation

Some people find that by slowly increasing the amount of milk or milk-containing products in their diets they are able to tolerate larger amounts of lactose without developing symptoms. This adaptation to increasing amounts of milk is not due to increases in lactase in the intestine. Adaptation probably results from alterations in the bacteria in the colon. Increasing amounts of lactose entering the colon change the colonic environment, for example, by increasing the acidity of the colon. These changes may alter the way in which the colonic bacteria handle lactose. For example, the bacteria may produce less gas. There also may be a reduction in the secretion of water and, therefore, less diarrhea.

Calcium and vitamin D supplements

Milk and milk-containing products are the best sources of dietary calcium, so it is no wonder that calcium deficiency is common among lactose intolerant persons. This increases the risk and severity of osteoporosis and the resulting bone fractures. It is important, therefore, for lactose intolerant persons to supplement their diets with calcium. A deficiency of vitamin D also causes disease of the bones and fractures. Milk is fortified with vitamin D and is a major source of vitamin D for many people. Although other sources of vitamin D can substitute for milk, it is a good idea for lactose-intolerant persons to take supplemental vitamin D to prevent vitamin D deficiency.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/12/2013

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Lactose Intolerance - Symptoms Question: The symptoms of lactose intolerance can vary greatly from patient to patient. What were your symptoms at the onset of your disease?
Lactose Intolerance - Causes Question: When did you develop lactose intolerance?
Lactose Intolerance - Diet Question: What's it like to try the elimination diet? What were the results?
Lactose Intolerance - Treatment Question: What forms of treatment, including diet and supplements, have been effective for your lactose intolerance?