Embracing Lactose-Free Dairy for Optimal Health

Lactose intolerance is a common concern among many people that impacts their ability to enjoy the nutritional benefits of dairy without discomfort. Many people are excluding milk and dairy foods from their diet in response to symptoms perceived as lactose intolerance. However, rather than viewing lactose intolerance as a barrier, we can harness the power of lactose-free and low-lactose dairy options to promote total wellness.

Mechanism of Lactose Intolerance: The Role of Lactase Enzyme

Lactose intolerance arises from the body's inability to fully digest lactose, the natural sugar present in milk and dairy products, due to insufficient levels of lactase enzyme. Lactose is digested by lactase, an enzyme that is produced in the intestine. Lactase then breaks down the lactose into two smaller units of sugar (monosaccharides) called glucose and galactose, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. The sugars provide the body with the fuel it needs for energy.

Although a lactase deficiency can lead to uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, gas and diarrhea, it's crucial to recognize that lactose intolerance does not necessitate complete dairy avoidance.

Lactose-Free and Low-Lactose Dairy Options

Lactose-free milk provides the same 13 essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and protein along with the flavor and richness of dairy found in regular milk – just without the lactose. This allows individuals with a sensitivity to lactose to maintain strong bones, support muscle growth and meet their nutritional needs without the worry of digestive distress. Aged cheeses, Greek yogurt and lactose-reduced milk are examples of low-lactose options that allow individuals to enjoy the flavor and benefits of dairy without digestive discomfort.

Lactose-Free Dairy: Supporting Health and Vitality

It is essential to highlight the role of dairy in promoting overall health and disease prevention. Current dietary guidelines recommend three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese or yogurt daily, for adults and children 9 years and older, acknowledging that the dairy group contributes many important nutrients. These recommendations are supported by scientific evidence that show milk, as part of a balanced diet, has been associated with improved bone health, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and improvements in weight management. By encouraging the consumption of lactose-free and low-lactose dairy options, we can ensure that people continue to receive these vital nutrients, contributing to their long-term health and vitality.

Lactose intolerance need not be a barrier to enjoying the nutritional benefits of dairy. Through the incorporation of lactose-free and low-lactose dairy options, we can promote digestive comfort, nutritional adequacy and overall wellness. By dispelling misconceptions and providing practical solutions, we empower individuals to make informed choices that support their well-being.

Empowering Choices for Wellness

Fortunately, there are tips that people who are sensitive to lactose can try to help them enjoy dairy without the worry:

  • Tip #1: Mix it up. Try dairy with or mixed into other foods. This can slow digestion, allowing your body time to produce enough lactase to handle the dairy. For example, some people have trouble drinking milk but do fine eating oatmeal or a casserole prepared with milk.
  • Tip #2: Build your tolerance. Many people with lactose intolerance actually produce enough lactase to tolerate small amounts of milk at one time (for some, up to one cup). It is also possible to build tolerance by gradually increasing the amount that is comfortable for you over several weeks. So remember: start low, go slow and spread your dairy throughout the day.
  • Tip #3: Try yogurt, cheese and lactose-free milk. Many people with lactose intolerance can tolerate lower-lactose dairy products such as yogurt and hard, natural cheeses like cheddar, Colby and Swiss, as well as lactose-free milk, which is real cow’s milk with added lactase so the lactose is already broken down.
  • Tip #4: Add a lactase supplement. For those with moderate-to-severe lactose intolerance, this may be the best option. Taken with dairy, these over-the-counter supplements provide your body with the lactase it needs to break down the lactose easily.

To find creative lactose intolerance-friendly recipes, visit our recipes page.

By Rexanna deGruy, Ph.D.

Rexanna deGruy grew up raising chickens and Brahman cattle commercially, with a farming father and an agricultural-science teaching mother. Fascinated by the chance to communicate with people from all walks of life, she pursued a Bachelor and Master of Science in agricultural communications from Texas A&M and Texas Tech University, respectively, then earned her Doctor of Philosophy in AEEE (agricultural and extension education and evaluation) from Louisiana State University. She gained experience in research and marketing working for her alma maters and for Wiggins Farms, earning several publishing credits on topics including food labeling and activist marketing. As she looked for her next opportunity, Rexanna knew she wanted to work for an organization with great purpose – and she found that purpose at Dairy MAX in September 2022. She and her husband, Dylan, live in Baton Rouge.

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