Lactose intolerance affects a lot of people globally and whilst most learn to live with the symptoms, many do not understand why they suffer. The first step to a better overall dietary health and a reduction in the problems associated with lactose intolerance is to understand what it is, what foods may contain lactose and how to reduce or avoid them. Here at The Allergy Cook we hope this short article will help you on your journey to understanding this dietary health problem.

What is Lactose Intolerance?

It is a reduction or loss of the ability of your body to produce an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme, lactase, is crucial, along with good bacteria, in breaking down lactose in the gut. Lactose, the “baddy” is a sugar that is found in milk; in fact it is sometimes called milk sugar. The problem begins when your body cannot break down or digest these milk sugars and the lactose begins to ferment inside your intestines and this is what may give you intestinal discomfort or worse. Foods that contain lactose should be avoided if you are lactose intolerant.

Lactic acid, however, is the result of these good bacteria breaking down the lactose to produce lactic acid. Lactic acid will not normally cause a dietary problem and foods that contain lactic acid are very unlikely to cause problems.

Who is affected by Lactose Intolerance?

It is possible to be affected from birth, but much more common is the development of this intolerance in later life, in adulthood. For many adults, the ability to convert lactose in the intestines begins to fall off quite dramatically and is especially worsened in individuals who have suffered some traumatic injury such as a fracture, a particularly bad infection or disease. There are some individuals who inherit lactose intolerance from their parents or maybe it skips a generation and is passed on genetically from one of the grandparents. Others that may be affected include those with coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease and those of increasing age or perhaps having undergone chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

What are the effects on the body?

In my own case, I had an inherited tendency towards this problem but I was largely unaware of this until my late forties. Then I suffered a campylobacter infection, food poisoning. This was a severe infection that took my body many weeks to even begin to recover. After this infection my body would no longer tolerate milk products but I was unaware of this change at first. It was months later that I began to understand and that what was happening to me began to make sense.

Symptoms can vary between individuals. Mild stomach discomfort could be the only outward sign; others may have debilitating stomach cramps, severe enough for them to have to stop what they are doing until the sensation goes away. Severe bloating and diarrhoea may follow until the body has rid itself of this unwanted foodstuff.

What foods might contain milk products?

Look at the labelling on food products, this is so important. If the ingredients list includes lactose, whey products, milk or milk solids then the product will contain lactose in varying quantities.

Unlabelled food, unpackaged food such as that bought at the supermarket meat counter or at your local delicatessen or bakery may not be labelled but may contain lactose products.

Some of the foods that you should definitely check for lactose or dairy content include …

milk                     dairy yoghurt                     ice cream,                           dairy cheeses and cheese spreads

white sauce        custard                                 rice puddings                     egg custard.

biscuits                 bread                                    tea cakes                             scones

cakes                     tablets                                  pizza                                      food supplements

butter                   margarine                           fudge and toffee             dry roast peanuts

Particularly rich in lactose are evaporated milk, condensed milk and fresh cream cakes. Check also the ingredients in fast foods, takeaways and curries, dipping sauces and batters. Many “health snacks”, especially those with yoghurt or milk coatings will contain lactose. The list goes on and on but please don’t lose hope; there are so many good, tasty foods out there for you that do not contain lactose.

What can I do?

Personally, I would always err on the side of caution. Always check the ingredients listed on the side of the packaging. Many manufacturers now embolden the allergens in their ingredients lists.

If you are buying unpackaged foods at a delicatessen or at a food counter in a supermarket you must ask. Most stores and shops will now have an allergen book at the back of the shop or behind the counter. The book will list all the ingredients in that product and should highlight any allergens such as lactose, milk, whey etc. The staff should not mind looking for you, so do ask. If they don’t have the information, if you cannot determine the ingredients then consider avoiding that product.

For some, where symptoms are mild discomfort, then reducing the quantity of that particular food in your diet may be enough; or reducing the frequency with which you consume it. Perhaps changing something that you eat every day to a twice weekly treat may bring the symptoms back under control.

For others though, complete avoidance is the only solution.

Moving on

We hope that this brief introduction to lactose intolerance has helped in some small way. Understanding that lactose and lactic acid are not the same thing is a start. Lactose is the bad guy whilst lactic acid should not cause a problem; and is in fact found in many non-dairy products.

Recognise the foods that are a problem for you and either eliminate them totally or reduce their intake. There are so many dairy free or lactose free foods available nowadays.  I have said for many years that I eat better and so much healthier foods now, knowing that I have a lactose intolerance than I ever did before.

Indications of lactose intolerance vary from person to person, from mild discomfort to severe cramps, bloating and worse. It helps to make a mental note of when you feel “ill” and to then ask yourself “what have I eaten today?” some people keep a daily notebook of the food they have eaten and how they feel. With time you will see a pattern develop. These may be the foods to remove from your diet or at least consider eating less of it.

Of course, if you suspect you have a dietary problem that might seriously impact on your health then you must seek expert medical advice. Many doctors are now more aware of how certain foods can affect certain individuals.

You will find more information on lactose intolerance in other articles produced by The Allergy Cook and we wish you good health in the future.

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