Lactose is a sugar (carbohydrate) which is found in milk of humans, cows, buffaloes and other milk producing animals, thus deriving the name ‘milk sugar’. For its digestion Lactose needs an enzyme (lactase) which if absent or deficient creates symptoms collectively termed as lactose intolerance.
Most human beings are born with excellent lactase activity which slowly declines with age. Approximately 65% of human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy (0-1 year). Hence there are chances that a person might not be born with lactose intolerance but develop it with increasing age. Infants born prematurely are at a risk of having lactase deficiency because lactase levels do not increase till the late third trimester (6-9 months) of pregnancy.
The degree of intolerance varies from person to person. Most lactose intolerants can digest milk / milk products in varying amounts or in one form or another. The symptoms are seen 30 minutes to two hours after consuming milk or milk products which include: abdominal pain, gas, diarrhoea, bloating, nausea, etc. It is very difficult to diagnose lactose intolerance purely based on these symptoms. To diagnose and ascertain, it is first recommended to follow an elimination diet. A person is advised to completely abstain from dairy products to observe any improvement in the symptoms. To further confirm the effects diagnostic tests can be administered.
Although the body’s ability to produce lactase cannot be changed, the symptoms of lactose intolerance can be managed with following dietary changes:
- Avoid lactose initially; gradually introduce small amounts of milk / milk products. This may help people to adapt with fewer symptoms. Also lactose is better tolerated when taken with meals.
- Lactose is also present in foods as additives so it becomes all the more necessary to read labels before consuming a processed food. Products which mention terms like ‘fat reduced’, ‘low fat’, ‘contains milk solids’ or ‘fat free’ have a higher lactose percentage. The foods which must be taken with caution include: pancakes, biscuits, cookies, doughnuts, processed breakfast cereals, instant soups, salad dressings, protein powders, powdered coffee creamers, etc.
- Fermentation of milk decreases the lactose content thus making it better in terms of digestion; which means curd is better digested compared to milk.
- Substitutes can be included in diet to maintain nutrient intake (especially proteins and calcium). Milk can be substituted with soy milk. Non-milk products which are rich source of calcium include: salmon, sardine, spinach, soy milk, sesame seeds, broccoli, etc. Nowadays dairy products containing predigested lactose are available in the market. These can be consumed without any symptoms.
- Improve the health of the intestines by including probiotics in the diet.
- Lactase enzyme tablets can be taken whenever dairy is consumed.
By following these simple tips you can stomach your dairy without having a stomach upset.
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