What’s So Bad About Lactose?

What’s So Bad About Lactose?

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (which is associated with the National Institutes of Health), “lactose intolerance is the inability or insufficient ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which is produced by the cells lining the small intestine”. It is not the same as a milk allergy which can be a serious health risk but it can definitely produce intense symptoms and make navigating a healthy (and yummy) diet a challenge.

According to www.babycentre.com, lactose intolerance “usually shows up in the grade school or teen years” and while it is rare among babies and toddlers it can temporarily follow an infant bout of gastroenteritis (the “stomach” flu) and is often seen “infants born prematurely…because an infant’s lactase levels do not increase until the third trimester of pregnancy”. Source  As well, younger children with another intestinal condition (such as Crohn’s disease or Celiac) are much more likely to suffer from secondary lactose intolerance. The symptoms are stomach pain, bloat, diarrhea and nausea.

So what to do, what to do? While many people assume it’s simply a question of avoiding the obvious offenders like ice cream and milk, I can attest from personal experience that the lactose landmines are not always so easily detected (yes, if you happen to be keeping track I am lactose intolerance, gluten intolerant, allergic to eggs and a vegetarian… What time should I come over for dinner??) Lactose is used in everything from salad dressing to bacon and candy (worst meal ever!) Plus, even with the most obvious foods, lactose intolerance can be wily. Symptoms can occur almost immediately in some cases or take up to two hours in others, making it difficult to pinpoint which food was the culprit. Here are some tips if you think you or your child might have a lactose intolerance:

  1. Get tested. Doctors can use a Hydrogen Breath test or a Stool Acidity test to help determine if lactose is a problem.
  1. Keep a food and symptom journal for a week. Recording all food and drink for seven days may seem tedious but it can prove truly valuable in pinpointing when symptoms appear and which foods should be eliminated.
  1. Be aware of hidden lactose. The NIH has a good list to start with that you can check out here Source
  1. Try enzyme supplements. Lactaid and other brands come in drops and tablets and in doses appropriate for both adults and children. Taken before a meal containing lactose, they can ease or even eliminate symptoms depending on the severity of the intolerance.

There is good news. Many people with lactose intolerance can manage small amounts of lactose, so some experimentation with foods might open up the dietary choices you thought were closed. Many people can also manage yogurt since it naturally contains the necessary enzyme (lactase) to break down lactose. Also, since the disorder is fairly common, food manufacturers are always coming up with new lactose free options including cheese that doesn’t taste like evil and ice cream that doesn’t make you weep! And best of all for parents worried about children, lactose intolerance is not dangerous and doesn’t lead to more serious gut damage. The one caveat of course is that other sources of calcium must be consumed to ensure bone health. Check out the NIH list included in the source reference for some tasty calcium options like rhubarb, almonds and citrus fruits. So, turns out there really is no need to cry… over… spilled…milk. Oh yes I did.

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