Lactose intolerance refers to the body’s inability to digest lactose, a natural sugar found in dairy products such as milk, cheese, cottage cheese and ice cream.

People who are lactose intolerant do not have enough lactase, which is an enzyme found in the small intestine, responsible for assisting in lactose digestion.

When the undigested lactose enters the large intestine, symptoms such as gas, cramps, bloating and even diarrhea can occur. These symptoms usually occur within 30 minutes to two hours after consuming lactose.

There are several different forms of lactose intolerance, which includes primary, secondary and developmental lactose intolerance.

Primary intolerance is the most common form of this condition and is determined by genetics.

Lactase production is normal until typically the late teen and adulthood years, then production diminishes significantly. The populations most affected by primary lactose intolerance include those with African, Asian and Hispanic descent.

Lactose intolerance can initially be self-diagnosed and confirmed by a physician. An elimination diet is usually recommended, which includes eliminating all dairy products from the diet to see if the symptoms resolve. If the symptoms of lactose intolerance stop after the elimination of lactose, this can help to confirm the diagnosis.

Another part of the elimination diet is gradually adding back dairy products to see which foods can be tolerated. Most people can tolerate some lactose in the diet. The amount of lactose accepted by the body varies and depends on the individual.

Management of lactose intolerance includes altering the diet to either limit or avoid the amount of lactose consumed. Visiting with a Registered Dietitian may be helpful to help devise a plan to properly manage the symptoms while ensuring the proper nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D, are being included.

Lactose-free products are available at most grocery stores and are nutritionally identical to regular dairy products. These products are treated with the lactase enzyme to break down the lactose.

Additionally, the use of lactase tablets can assist in the digestion of lactose before eating and drinking dairy products.

Carey Stites is a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor and a Registered Dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition. Carey is currently the Registered Dietitian working with Wellstone in Harker Heights. Contact her at carey.stites@smchh.org.

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