02/12/2013 10:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dairy, Your Diet and Lactose Intolerance: What You Need To Know

If you watched the news or picked up a magazine last month, you probably weren't able to avoid all the diet conversation that appeared right on schedule after January 1. It's the time of year again when people look for a quick fix and often turn to a fad diet that typically eliminates an entire food group in exchange for the promise of changing a person's appearance in a short period of time. In recent years, some of these fad diets have shared a common target: dairy.

When it comes to dairy's role in the diet, everyone seems to have an opinion or belief. However, through ongoing conversations with media, health professionals and consumers, misconceptions and confusion about dairy foods ― particularly around lactose intolerance -- remain a part of the nutrition discussion. But whether in a cup or on a plate, in low-fat, fat-free, or lactose-free varieties, dairy foods are an important part of MyPlate and can fit easily into most eating plans to meet a variety of taste preferences and health and wellness goals.


A Nutritional Powerhouse
For Americans (ages 2+), milk is the number one food source of calcium, potassium and vitamin D in the diet -- nutrients that many are under consuming. Plus, both regular milk and lactose-free milk are also excellent sources of vitamin B12, phosphorus and riboflavin and good sources of protein and vitamin A.

As stated in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate evidence shows that the intake of milk and milk products not only helps improve bone health, but also is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure in adults. These health benefits are important things to consider before potentially reducing the consumption of dairy foods due to concerns about lactose intolerance or for a new diet. Further, these benefits make it ever more vital that individuals consult with their doctor or registered dietitian before entering into any eating plan.

Dairy, Lactose and Your Health
Unfortunately, many Americans self-diagnose conditions such as lactose intolerance before consulting a doctor or registered dietitian and avoid dairy products unnecessarily. Research indicates this can result in a lower intake of essential nutrients, which are important for good health. However, having lactose intolerance doesn't have to mean giving up dairy. Different people can handle different amounts of lactose, and there's a solution to meet most needs in the dairy case -- from lactose-free milk to dairy foods that are typically easier to digest. The key is to know what works best for you.

While learning a new way of eating may seem challenging, there are a number of easy tips to help those with lactose intolerance enjoy the dairy foods they love:

  • Start small. Try drinking a small amount of milk daily and increase slowly over several days or weeks to tolerance;
  • Opt for lactose-free milk and milk products. They are real milk products, just without lactose, and provide the same nutrients as regular dairy foods;
  • Mix milk with other foods. Blend with fruit, include in soups and cereal or drink milk with meals. Solid foods help slow digestion and allow the body more time to digest lactose;
  • Choose cheese. Top sandwiches or whole grain crackers with cheeses such as Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, mozzarella and Swiss. Natural cheeses contain small amounts of lactose; and
  • Enjoy easy-to-digest yogurt. The live and active cultures in yogurt help to digest lactose.

Remember, you don't and shouldn't have to go it alone. Talk to your physician or a registered dietitian about your symptoms, learn your lactose limit and find a well-balanced plan that's right for you.

For the latest news, research, recipes and educational materials related lactose intolerance and dairy, visit National Dairy Council.