If you've discovered you're lactose intolerant, you may be wondering how you'll survive without milk, cheese and perhaps most importantly, ice cream. Fear not. We've got five tips for how to deal with lactose intolerance that will even let you enjoy the occasional slice of pizza or a sundae—with all the toppings!

What Is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance means you have trouble digesting the milk sugar found in dairy products like milk, cheese, and ice cream. It's usually caused by a lack of lactase in the small intestine. Lactase is an enzyme that breaks down milk sugar during digestion. If you're lactose intolerant, you might get stomach or intestinal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, gas, and bloating when you down a glass of milk or consume other dairy products. It becomes more common as we age and certain populations, including Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and people from Southern Europe have lactose intolerance more often than people from other cultural groups and ethnicities. People who've had intestinal surgery, injuries and infections, and those with celiac or Crohn's disease, are at an increased risk for the condition.

Does Lactose Intolerance Mean I Can Never Have Dairy Products Again?

Not at all. Many people can tolerate small amounts of lactose as long as they only consume a little at a time or with other foods. Many dairy products have very little lactose in them, making them well tolerated. Check out these tips for living with lactose intolerance:

1. Stock up on low or no-lactose dairy products. You don't have to toss all your fave dairy picks: Aged cheeses like parmesan, gouda, and cheddar; butter; and low-fat yogurt are all good low- or no-lactose dairy products.

2. Buy lactose-free milk. Several brands of milk add lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) to their products to make them easier to digest. Lact-Aid®, Organic Valley®, Dairygold®, and Smart Balance® are a few brands that are readily available in markets. You can also look for lactose-free half-and-half, ice cream, and other products.

3. Take a lactase supplement. There are many lactase enzyme products on the market and they're considered safe for most people. You have to take them every time you eat or drink a dairy product and most people say they work fairly well. A normal dose is one to two lactase tablets taken either right before you eat or with the first bite of dairy. If you're eating something extra-cheesy or creamy, you might need to take more. There's no guarantee they'll work well enough to completely avoid "lactose belly," but if you just can't pass up that slice of pizza, these supplements are a good alternative. They're well tolerated and widely available over the counter at most drugstores and supermarkets.

4. Try milk-free dairy products. Vegan cheeses, non-dairy milks (rice, almond, soy), and other dairy alternatives aren't exactly the same as the originals, but many brands have delicious offerings. You'll have to experiment a bit to find new things you'll like. Try pouring almond milk on your cereal or dishing rice-based ice cream into your bowl.

5. Try taking probiotics. Some people find that regularly taking probiotics (the "healthy" bacteria supplement) helps boost their ability to tolerate lactose. This is especially effective for people who were once able to eat dairy foods, but reached a point where they no longer could.

If you're still having trouble after trying these tips, see your doctor and find out if there's something else going on with your tummy. "There are other potential problems patients can have with milk," says Liesa Harte, MD, who practices Functional Medicine in Austin Texas. "An immune response may be to blame, and some people who are reactive to gluten may have a cross-reaction to dairy."

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.




National Digestive Diseases
Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)
What I need to know about Lactose Intolerance