The low-down on lactose intolerance

Cara Cunningham, MINDI, Community Dietitian

Lactose intolerance means a person is unable to digest and absorb lactose.

Lactose is a sugar that naturally occurs in milk, and not just cow’s milk, but also milk from other mammals such as buffalo, goats and sheep.

It is estimated that up to five per cent of adults have lactose intolerance, but this can be much higher in some ethnic groups.

Lactose intolerance should not be confused with a cow’s milk allergy, which is an immune response that can result in a serious allergic reaction. Lactose intolerance is not an allergy but it can cause considerable discomfort to the sufferer. If your body does not break down lactose, this means it stays inside your intestine. This is when the trouble starts as it can be fermented, causing excess gas and bloating. Having extra sugar in the intestine can also cause you to have diarrhoea.

Lactose intolerance can happen as a result of damage to your intestines, such as after a bout of severe gastroenteritis’s or undiagnosed coeliac disease, or other bowel problems. This is usually temporary. Once the condition is treated a person can gradually reintroduce lactose into their diet.

For some lactose intolerant people it is more persistent. This is because it is caused by a gradual reduction in the production of lactase - the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose. This means that if you drink too much milk or dairy products it will cause a problem. However, it does not mean you have to avoid dairy completely. A small amount (like milk in tea ) may be fine, especially if it is spread out throughout the day.

If you are avoiding milk, this will drastically lower your calcium intake, so you will have to get it elsewhere. You could get calcium from milk alternative, such as soya, almond or rice milk. Just ensure that they have calcium added as it will not be naturally there in these products. There are also lactose free milks on the market.

If you think you have a lactose intolerance you should talk to your doctor, as avoiding dairy products can restrict not only your lifestyle but can (without care ) mean that your diet is lacking in calcium and other nutrients.

For more information or for more information on diet and nutrition, contact The Community Nutrition and Dietetic Service, HSE Dublin-Mid Leinster, on (044 ) 9395518 or email [email protected].

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