If you love milk and dairy products but such foods rebuff your advances at every turn, leaving you recoiling in pain or sitting on the toilet looking for a respite, you’re not alone. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 65 percent of the human population “has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy,” and lactose intolerance is known for heavily impacting certain groups–including Black people.
“Although lactose intolerance can affect anyone, it tends to occur more often in those that are of Asian, African, South American or people of Native American descent,” said Marci Clow, MS, a registered dietician and the senior nutritionist at Rainbow Light. And while lactose intolerance is prevalent in these communities, it’s lowest in populations that have always relied on unfermented milk products in their foods. In laymen’s terms, certain conditions in particular parts of the world are “favorable” to introducing this intolerance from generation to generation.
But aside from certain circumstances, what’s going on internally that causes many of us (myself included) to be lactose intolerant?
“Lactose is a sugar molecule which occurs in milk. To digest lactose requires an enzyme called lactase. Most humans are born with the ability to produce lactase, but in rare cases, a newborn may have lactose intolerance,” Clow said. “Genetic background often dictates whether someone will develop lactose intolerance, but sometimes the small intestine stops making lactase when a person is ill or after intestinal surgery. In these cases, the intolerance can be temporary or it may become permanent. Sometimes people who have never had problems digesting dairy products suddenly develop lactose intolerance. This phenomenon is more common as we age.”
So no, it’s not about the fact that you’ve gone HAM on chocolate milk all of a sudden. In fact, becoming lactose intolerant is unavoidable for some people. Most commonly running in families, lactose intolerance often develops during one’s teen or adult years. And while many people assume they have the condition, Clow said that checking with your doctor to confirm is your best bet–lest you confuse lactose intolerance with another more serious problem.
But if you are confirmed to not be fully able to digest the sugars in dairy products, you’ll be happy to know there are a large amount of alternatives to milk on the market.
“Within the last decade there has been an upward trend in milk substitutes, with options ranging from soy milk which was the first to hit the market, to coconut, almond and even hemp milk. Those who are indeed lactose intolerant have lots of options,” Clow said. “Lactose-free milk is also available, and some people find goat milk is a good option as it is easier to absorb.”
If you are worried about losing your main source of calcium because you need to drop your regular milk source, Clow recommends trying milk substitutes that are fortified with calcium, as well as loading up on foods like leafy vegetables (dark ones), broccoli, canned fish, almonds, cereal, tofu, and juices chock-full of calcium.
These options are great for those who can have certain types of dairy and be okay, as well as those who struggle to digest any milk product. For instance, I struggle to eat milk chocolate candy, cheese, and most other products derived from milk. I’m often left with a few of the many symptoms of lactose intolerance when I do, including bloating, cramping, gas, loose stools, nausea, gurgling, and even some vomiting.
Don’t let that scare you, though. As Clow mentioned, “Lactose intolerance can be treated with simple dietary changes. Although there is not a cure, symptoms can easily be managed and the best way is to avoid dairy. Dietary supplements that contain the enzyme lactase to help digest lactose are also an option for those who may have difficulties avoiding dairy or would like to occasionally indulge.”
With milk alternatives all over the market, including ice creams, yogurts, drinks, dressings, cakes and more, living with lactose intolerance doesn’t have to be so uncomfortable after all. In fact, you can do and feel just fine, and wind up appreciating the tastes of a good almond or coconut milk more than that ol’ gallon of two percent. Milk does a body good, but it’s alternatives aren’t so bad either.