02/12/2013 10:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

So What is Lactose Intolerance, Really?

Lactose intolerance -- it's a term we hear used often, especially when discussed among issues like stomach aches and food intolerances such as Celiac disease. But what does it really mean? Who and how many of us are actually affected by it? And does it mean you need to eliminate any foods from your diet? I hope to answer these questions and correct any misinformation about lactose intolerance so that you can make an informed nutrition decision for you and your family.

What is lactose intolerance?
What does lactose intolerance actually mean? Lactose intolerance is a condition that occurs as a result of having reduced levels of lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose -- the natural sugar in milk. The amount of lactase a person has is determined by genetics. People who have lower levels of the lactase enzyme may experience symptoms after consuming certain dairy foods because they are consuming more lactose than their body can break down at a given time. It is important to note that even those with lactose intolerance can consume varying amounts of lactose with minimal or no symptoms. In fact, consuming milk and other dairy foods like cheese and yogurt can be a great way to receive nutrients essential to your health, including calcium, vitamin D and protein.


Is lactose intolerance considered a food allergy?
In seeing patients, I've found that there is a growing confusion between lactose intolerance and milk allergy, especially as awareness of food sensitivities such as Celiac disease continues to grow. But it's important to know the facts: Lactose intolerance is not an allergy to milk or other dairy products. Rather, lactose intolerance is a reaction to the milk sugar in the small and large bowel after consuming dairy foods, whereas an allergy is a reaction to the protein in dairy foods triggered by the immune system.

Whom does lactose intolerance affect?
Twelve percent of American adults report being lactose intolerant and that number grows among ethnic minorities. A study conducted by TA Nicklas found 19.5 percent of African Americans and 10.05 percent of Hispanic Americans report lactose intolerance. This is worth mentioning because both African American and Hispanic communities tend to consume less than the recommended servings of dairy a day. Not meeting these recommendations could result in missing out on essential nutrients important for good health. Further, the latest Dietary Guidelines state that moderate evidence shows that intake of milk and milk products is linked to improved bone health, and is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and with lower blood pressure in adults.

Does lactose intolerance affect children?
I've heard concern from parents that they're afraid their child may be lactose intolerant. Some will inappropriately eliminate dairy foods from their child's diet. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), most children do not experience the symptoms of a lactase deficiency until late adolescence or adulthood. If your child is experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort, it's critical to speak with your child's pediatrician. Remember, "all that rumbles is not lactose intolerance."

How can you tell if you're lactose intolerant?
There's only one way to actually tell if you're lactose intolerant: Visit a doctor to be tested. Your doctor will be able to tell if you are truly lactose intolerant by conducting a hydrogen breath test or a stool acidity test, which are reliable ways to measure the effect of lactose in the digestive system.

After reading this post, I hope your questions on lactose intolerance have been answered. But remember, as with any medical condition, work with your doctor to understand what is best for you.