The Truth About Lactose Intolerance

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While most people are familiar with the term lactose intolerance, not everyone is sure exactly what it means. Learning more about the topic can help people who may not respond well to dairy products in their diets, without clearly understanding why.

Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. In most people, the cells lining the small intestine produce an enzyme called lactase, which breaks lactose down into a form that can be absorbed by the blood. However, not everyone produces enough lactase to properly digest lactose, which means it passes through the digestive system. This can cause unpleasant symptoms such as abdominal pain and discomfort, gas, and diarrhea.

30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, with some populations disproportionately affected. For example, 75% of all African-American, Jewish, Mexican-American, and Native Americans are lactose intolerant, as well as 90% of Asian-Americans.

Lactose intolerance may also be known as lactase deficiency. Although there is no specific treatment to improve the body’s ability to produce lactase, symptoms can be reduced by minimizing or eliminating dairy products from your diet. This is far easier now than in years past, given the wide array of dairy alternatives in literally every category, from milk and cheese to sour cream and yogurt.

What if your pediatrician encourages dairy even if your child is lactose intolerant? Some physicians may do so, since the American Academy of Pediatrics revised their guidelines for treating lactose intolerance in 2006. In the past, it had been recommended that eliminating dairy products from the diet was the best way to treat lactose intolerance. However, the new guidelines support the use of dairy foods as an important source of calcium for bone growth and maintenance, as well as of other nutrients needed for development in children and adolescents─even if kids can’t tolerate lactose.

You’ll have a sense of what’s best for your children, but you can rest assured that if you do choose to relieve their discomfort by cutting out the dairy, there are many other foods rich in calcium and other essential nutrients, as well as children’s vitamin supplements to fill in gaps as needed. Here’s to feeling great, with or without the dairy!

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