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Got Milk? Healthy Tips for Lactose Intolerance

By: Gwen Y. Reyes-Amurao, M.D.Got Milk? Healthy Tips for Lactose Intolerance

The National Institute of Health defines lactose intolerance as a condition in which people experience digestive symptoms after consuming dairies or dairy products, and is mainly due to lactase deficiency or lactose malabsorption. People who have lactase deficiency have low levels of an enzyme called lactase, which make it difficult for them to break it down to more simple and easily digestible forms. Lactose malabsorption, on the other hand, occurs when lactose moves through the digestive system without being properly digested, and leads to uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, stomach pain and bloating. Although these are commonly experienced by those who suffer from this condition, they may vary according to the severity of intolerance to milk and milk products and the amount that they can actually consume. Some may be able to drink a small glass of milk without experiencing symptoms, while others may react to a very small amount mixed in their tea or coffee.

Because of its signs and symptoms, lactose intolerance is sometimes confused with milk allergy. While lactose intolerance is a digestive system disorder, milk allergy is a reaction by the body’s immune system to one or more milk proteins. Milk allergy often occurs in the first year of life and can be life-threatening for the child. When it comes to predisposing factors, sadly, there are people who are more at risk of having lactose intolerance. African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians fall under the ethnic and racial populations that are more likely to have this condition.

Signs and Symptoms

Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal bloating or a feeling of fullness, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and loose or watery stools. Symptoms usually occur within 30 minutes to 2 hours after taking in milk or milk products and may range from mild to severe based on the amount of milk or milk products actually consumed. Since people with lactose intolerance cannot drink any type of dairy product, they often lack in calcium and vitamin D, especially if they do not eat enough calcium-rich food or do not take calcium supplements. So a later consequence of lactose intolerance could be poor bone health, especially when not supplemented adequately.


Since calcium is important in bone health, a shortage of calcium may lead to fragile, brittle or unhealthy bones or conditions known as rickets, osteopenia, and osteoporosis. And because milk is also rich in protein and other essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin A, B12 and vitamin D, magnesium and zinc, being lactose intolerant puts a person at risk for malnutrition. Luckily, there are now a lot of dairy and dairy product substitutes that can help prevent these complications and even help with proper milk digestion.


Most people can address this condition by simply changing their diet, and of course, limiting the amount of lactose intake. Working together with a physician and a nutritionist or dietician can help manage the symptoms of lactose intolerance while making sure that they are getting enough nutrients. In cases like these, a dietary plan is often recommended especially for children. The goal of treatment is always to supply the body with an adequate amount of calcium which is important for bone growth.


The Mayo Clinic mentions that gradually introducing small amounts of milk or milk products may help some people adapt to them with fewer symptoms. In most cases, cutting down on or avoiding sources of lactose and replacing them with lactose-free alternatives is enough to control the symptoms of lactose intolerance. Fortunately, there are now lactose-free and lactose-reduced milk and milk products that are available in supermarkets and have the same nutritional equivalent to dairy products. When doing groceries, it is important to take note of common produce that don’t usually contain lactose but are just as nutritionally suffice in providing the essential vitamins and minerals found in milk and milk products. These include:

  • soya milks, yogurts, and some cheeses
  • milks made from rice, oats, almonds, hazelnuts, coconut, quinoa, and potato
  • foods which carry the 'dairy-free' or 'suitable for vegans' signs

Aside from knowing the substitutes to dairies and dairy products, it is also a must to be informed of some common products that may contain lactose even in trace amounts.

  • bread and other baked goods
  • waffles, pancakes, biscuits, cookies, and the mixes to make them
  • processed breakfast foods such as doughnuts, frozen waffles and pancakes, toaster pastries, and sweet rolls
  • processed breakfast cereals
  • instant potatoes, soups, and breakfast drinks
  • potato chips, corn chips, and other processed snacks
  • processed meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and lunch meats
  • margarine
  • salad dressings
  • liquid and powdered milk-based meal replacements
  • protein powders and bars
  • candies
  • nondairy liquid and powdered coffee creamers
  • nondairy whipped toppings

Make sure to check the ingredients of all food and drink products carefully, because milk or lactose are often hidden ingredients.

Role of Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps the body absorb and use calcium and often go hand-in-hand with it, which is why those with lactose intolerance usually lack vitamin D in their diet as well. Food such as salmon, tuna, and eggs are rich in this vitamin. But not a lot of people know that you can get your daily dose by simply basking under the sun. Sunlight is the most natural and is the cheapest way to get those vitamin D levels up in your body. 

Calcium and Vitamin D

Ensuring that children and adults with lactose intolerance get enough calcium is important, especially if their intake of milk and milk products is limited. The amount of calcium a person needs to maintain good health varies by age. A U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance for calcium has not been determined for infants. However, researchers suggest 200 mg of calcium per day for infants age 0 to 6 months and 260 mg for infants age 6 to 12 months.

Many foods can provide calcium and other nutrients the body needs. Nonmilk products high in calcium include fish with soft bones, such as canned salmon and sardines, and dark green vegetables, such as spinach. Manufacturers may also add calcium to fortified breakfast cereals, fruit juices, and soy beverage also called soy milk. Many fortified foods are also excellent sources of vitamin D and other essential nutrients, in addition to calcium.

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