Understanding Lactose Intolerance

On the 1st of June, the world observes world milk day. The United Nations, through the Food and Agricultural Organization initiated a campaign to promote the health benefits of milk and dairy products.

Regarded as a whole food, and best known for its role in providing calcium to the body, milk is rich in protein, carbohydrates and fats. In addition, milk contains essential vitamins in the B-group, magnesium and potassium, all of which are crucial for maintaining good health.  

However, not everybody can enjoy the goodness of milk. Many people suffer stomach discomfort soon after consuming dairy products.  It is estimated that about 40% of people will gradually stop producing lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose, making them lactose intolerant.

Not to be confused with milk allergy, lactose intolerance refers to a condition where one is unable to fully digest lactose- the sugar component in milk. Lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose is developed in the small intestines. As one grown into adulthood, their diet continuously becomes less reliant on milk hence the production of lactase gradually decreases naturally.

When this happens, after consuming dairy products containing lactose, the digested food passes from the stomach to the small intestines. Here, the lactase enzyme should breakdown the lactose into simple sugars; glucose and galactose for absorption the bloodstream. However, in the event that one does not produce enough lactase, the lactose based food products then move to the large intestines without proper digestion. In the large intestines, bacteria breakdown the lactose to produce short-chain fatty acids and carbon dioxide methane and hydrogen gases.

Production of these gases results in bloating, one of the most common symptoms of lactose intolerance. Other symptoms include abdominal cramps, gas and diarrhea. In extreme cases, some people will experience, nausea, vomiting and occasional constipation. The severity of the symptoms depend on the amount of lactose consumed and the individual level of intolerance.

The symptoms present about two hours after the consumption of milk or dairy products. Given that the condition presents with the decrease of lactase in the body, most people develop it later in life. Though harmless, this condition can be quite uncomfortable not to mention embarrassing to deal with, but is manageable.

 The most effective way to manage lactose intolerance is by avoiding dairy foods that contain lactose for example:

  • Cow and Goat milk,
  • Cottage and Ricotta Cheese,
  • Butter
  • Ice-cream
  • Sour cream 

Given the nutritional value of milk, avoiding dairy products altogether could mean missing out on these essential nutrients. Therefore, you can substitute milk in your diet with foods that have an almost equal nutritional value but are lactose free. Soy milk is particularly recommended as a great substitute to cow and goat milk as it is rich in protein, potassium and antioxidants. Other milk substitutes that you could use in your lactose free diet include; 

  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Rice milk
lactose free - food with background

It comes as a great relief to note that even with this condition, you may still have milk, as one can tolerate up to 12 grams of lactose in single sitting or 18 grams spread through the day. This translates to one cup of milk a day.

Even better news is the fact that recently, most milk processing companies are now producing lactose free milk, which is equally rich in calcium, protein and contains a high amount of vitamins A, B and K. Just like normal milk, lactose free milk also contains zinc potassium and magnesium, so you do not have to miss out on the goodness on milk anymore.

Further reading

  1. Sengupta, S. (2020). World Milk Day 2020: Why is Milk Considered to be a Complete Meal? NDTV Food [Online]. Accessed [09/07/2020]. Available here. 
  1. WebMD Medical Reference (2020). What is Lactose Intolerance? [Online]. Accessed [10 /07/2020] Available here
  2. Health Authorities, Dairy Nutrition (2020). Lactose Intolerance. [Online]. Accessed [10/07/2020]. Available from here.

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