When You Can't Drink

More nutritious than most other beverages, commercially prepared milk contains calcium, protein, potassium, phosphorus, and the vitamins niacin, B12, D, and riboflavin. Vitamin D and calcium are especially critical in maintaining strong bones to last throughout life. Unfortunately, many adults, as they age, are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk.

Milk is almost always easy to digest for young children. After all, it is typically the first beverage consumed by humans and most mammals. Milk contains a sugar known as lactose. Babies have an enzyme (lactase) that can break down lactose for easy digestion. However, most humans lose the ability to digest milk as they become adolescents because of their genetic makeup. They are called lactose intolerant. (Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy, which is similar to peanut, wasp sting, or penicillin allergy. People allergic to milk must avoid it entirely.)

Which adults cannot drink milk?

Most of the world is lactose intolerant, including the majority of Asians, Africans, and Mexicans. About 30-50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, depending on their genetic makeup. This includes 75% of African-American, Jewish, Native American, and Mexican-American adults. The major adult group that can drink milk is those of Northern European descent.

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

About 30 minutes to two hours after drinking milk or eating dairy products, those who are lactose intolerant will probably begin to feel uncomfortable and may experience nausea, abdominal cramping, intestinal bloating and gas, and diarrhea. Symptoms may only be mild, with a little gas and softness of stools. On the other hand, the patient may be unable to retain the gas buildup, so that underclothing becomes soiled, and it can be difficult to reach a bathroom in time. Negative effects of dairy problems depend on several factors, such as how lactose intolerant a person is and how much milk (or dairy product) has been ingested.

What can you do?

Most people who are lactose intolerant can still drink some milk. They may also be able to eat cheese and other foods prepared with milk, such as soups or frozen entrees. Many people who have difficulty digesting milk find that they can eat yogurt, which contains bacteria that produce lactase.

Other options for people who are lactose intolerant are nonprescription tablets and drops that contain lactase to help digest the lactose in milk and special lactose-free milks.

Although milk and dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, people can get adequate amounts of calcium from other foods. For instance, leafy green vegetables such as kale and broccoli, sardines, and certain cereal bars contain high amounts of absorbable calcium. Calcium-supplemented rice and soy milk may also be acceptable for many people. There are many different varieties to try.

Supplements containing calcium and vitamin D may also help people meet daily calcium requirements.

Living with lactose intolerance

You are the best guide to your condition. It is not dangerous to try to eat dairy-containing foods if you are lactose intolerant. Therefore, you can try suspected foods and see how you feel within a couple of hours. You might want to keep a diary. Eliminate the foods/drinks that cause problems. Gradually increase the amounts of milk/dairy products as long as you are not troubled. Consult your pharmacist for more information.