Lactose Intolerance: Let Them Drink Milk

Have lactose intolerance? That doesn't mean you should avoid milk and dairy products.

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You read it right! Folks with lactose intolerance should be drinking milk. But let's not stop there – cheese and yogurt should be on the menu, too. Recent research found that folks with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 1 cup of milk in one sitting. But let's start from the beginning.

[, {database=usnews(usnews/delegate/solr, usnews/delegate/mysql), status=null, id=00000143-e634-de47-a9cf-fefc44a40000, typeId=00000142-9226-d1f0-a5c6-b2f75ff00005, simpleValues={alignment=left,record={_ref=00000142-9256-d33c-abc6-ff5794300017,_type=00000142-9226-d1f0-a5c6-b2f75ff60014},_id=00000143-e634-de47-a9cf-fefc44a40000,_type=00000142-9226-d1f0-a5c6-b2f75ff00005}, extras={}, errors=null}, ]What is Lactose Intolerance? 

Lactose intolerance is a gastrointestinal disturbance that happens after consuming more lactose than your body can handle. Milk and dairy products contain a natural milk sugar called lactose, made from two sugar components, glucose and galactose. The body needs to separate lactose into its two sugar components is that it can be absorbed into your bloodstream. If these two sugars stay connected, uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, gas, loose stools and stomach pain can result. 

Lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy. A cow's milk allergy is triggered by the immune system, not the digestive system like in lactose intolerance. Someone with a milk allergy must avoid all milk and dairy products. Those with a cow's milk allergy should get retested regularly, as the allergy will often disappear after a period of time and cow's milk can be reintroduced into the diet. 

[Read: Think You're Lactose Intolerant? Maybe Not.]

Prevalence

Twelve percent of the U.S. population experiences lactose intolerance. Data from a 2009 study revealed that about 8 percent of European Americans have lactose intolerance, about 10 percent of Hispanic Americans and about 19.5 percent of African Americans. But many folks who claim to have lactose intolerance have never been tested. These folks tend to unnecessarily avoid dairy products, which can lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiencies. Plus, they miss out on the fabulous flavor of dairy foods. If you think you have lactose intolerance, it's important to get tested. Tests like the hydrogen breath test and lactose tolerance test can be administered by a physician and provide a proper diagnosis.

[Read: 5 Non-Dairy Foods With Calcium.]

The Recommendations 

Both the National Medical Association and a National Institutes of Health expert panel recommend folks with lactose intolerance try to keep dairy foods in their diet. Studies show that many folks with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 1 cup of milk – that's 12 grams of lactose. However, the amount of lactose tolerated varies from person to person. It's also easier to digest lactose if combined with another food, like a dollop of Greek yogurt over butternut squash soup or shaved Parmesan cheese over a salad. When lactose-filled foods are eaten along with other foods, it slows the digestion of lactose, helping to alleviate any uncomfortable symptoms that may occur. 

Including lower lactose dairy foods is a delicious and nutritious option. Below are the amounts of lactose in common dairy foods: 

• 1 cup low fat or nonfat milk: 12 grams

• 6 ounces low fat plain yogurt: 13 grams

• 6 ounces low fat or nonfat Greek yogurt: 4 grams

• 1/2 cup low fat cottage cheese: 3 grams

• 1 ounce sharp cheddar cheese or Swiss cheese: less than 1 gram 

Although yogurt has 13 grams of lactose, the live and active cultures help break down some of it, making it easier to digest. Greek yogurt is a fantastic choice for folks with lactose intolerance too. During the straining process, much of the lactose is removed. And cheese lovers are in luck! Hard cheeses like cheddar and Swiss are extremely lactose-intolerant friendly with less than 1 gram of lactose per ounce. 

Lactose-free milk and dairy products are another option. You can now find lactose-free milk, cottage cheese and ice cream. Alternative milks like almond, hemp, soy and rice can also be used, though they don't provide nearly as many nutrients as found in milk and dairy foods.

[Read: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt.]

On the Menu 

You'd probably be surprised to hear all the wonderful dishes individuals with lactose intolerance can enjoy. In a recent culinary demonstration at the Food and Nutrition Conference, Chef Chris Shepherd (from Houston's Underbelly restaurant) and I demonstrated several lactose-intolerant friendly dishes, including a 3-pound shoulder braised in lactose-free milk, Paneer cheese made from lactose-free milk and guacamole made by combining pureed cottage cheese and avocado. This May, my first cookbook, "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day" (Grand Central Publishing), is being released – and recipes are lactose friendly. You'll find options like Lemon-Blueberry Stuffed French Toast, Penne Bolognese and White Margarita Pizza. 

Sadly, many folks are misinformed about what they can and cannot eat when they have lactose intolerance. They avoid milk and dairy products and miss out on all their benefits, culinary and nutritional. If you're affected with lactose intolerance, please raise your milk glass with me – and say cheers! 

[Read: The Science Behind Raw Milk.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback. 

Toby Amidor , MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.