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How does lactose intolerance affect health?

In addition to causing unpleasant symptoms, lactose intolerance may affect people’s health if it keeps them from consuming enough essential nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D.

People with lactose intolerance may not get enough calcium if they do not eat calcium-rich foods or do not take a dietary supplement that contains calcium.

Milk and milk products are major sources of calcium and other nutrients in the diet. Calcium is essential at all ages for the growth and maintenance of bones. A shortage of calcium intake in children and adults may lead to bones that are less dense and can easily fracture later in life, a condition called osteoporosis.

Eating, Diet, and Nutrition

People may find it helpful to talk with a health care provider or a registered dietitian about a dietary plan. A dietary plan can help people manage the symptoms of lactose intolerance and make sure they get enough nutrients. Parents, caretakers, childcare providers, and others who serve food to children with lactose intolerance should follow the dietary plan recommended by the child’s health care provider or registered dietitian.

Milk and milk products. Gradually introducing small amounts of milk or milk products may help some people adapt to them with fewer symptoms. Often, people can better tolerate milk or milk products by having them with meals, such as having milk with cereal or having cheese with crackers. People with lactose intolerance are generally more likely to tolerate hard cheeses, such as cheddar or Swiss, than a glass of milk. A 1.5‑ounce serving of low-fat hard cheese has less than 1 gram of lactose, while a 1-cup serving of low-fat milk has about 11 to 13 grams of lactose.

However, people with lactose intolerance are also more likely to tolerate yogurt than milk, even though yogurt and milk have similar amounts of lactose.

Points to Remember

  • Lactose is a sugar found in milk and milk products.

  • Lactose intolerance is a condition in which people have digestive symptoms—such as bloating, diarrhoea, and gas—after eating or drinking milk or milk products.

  • A health care provider makes a diagnosis of lactose intolerance based on medical, family, and diet history, including a review of symptoms; a physical exam; and medical tests.

  • Basing a diagnosis on symptoms alone may be misleading because digestive symptoms can occur for many reasons other than lactose intolerance.

  • Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate some amount of lactose in their diet and do not need to avoid milk or milk products completely. However, individuals vary in the amount of lactose they can tolerate.

  • Research suggests that adults and adolescents with lactose malabsorption could eat or drink at least 12 grams of lactose in one sitting without symptoms or with only minor symptoms. This amount is the amount of lactose in 1 cup of milk.

  • Be Aware of Calcium Needs. People who are lactose intolerant tend to cut out dairy foods. If you do that, you can shortchange yourself on calcium. You need calcium for healthy teeth and bones, and vitamin D to help your body use calcium.

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