Lactose intolerance is a digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose – a type of sugar found primarily in dairy products.
According to statistics, a whopping 75% of the human population are lactose intolerant to some degree or another, with Asian communities being the worst affected ethnic group.
While the condition is less common in European countries, there are a great number of people who could be living with the condition without even realising.
This is because symptoms of lactose intolerance can often be mistaken for other common digestive problems, such as IBS. After consuming food or drink containing lactose, sufferers will typically experience bloating, stomach cramps and pains, nausea, flatulence, and possibly even diarrhoea. The severity of these symptoms will depend on how much lactose is consumed.
So why can’t we digest lactose?
Humans are the only species to drink milk past the age of breast-feeding, and are the only animal to drink milk of a different species. As a result, our bodies are not specifically designed to tolerate lactose, and it can only be digested if it is broken down into small compounds by the enzyme, lactase.
Unfortunately, some people do not have this enzyme, therefore the undigested lactose sits in their stomach lining and starts fermenting – leading to abdominal pain, cramps and feelings of bloating and discomfort.
How can lactose intolerance be managed?
The first crucial step is seeking professional advice. Your GP will be able to officially diagnose a lactose intolerance, whilst a nutritionist or dietitian can carry out an assessment and provide a tailored diet plan to help you avoid certain foods that cause your symptoms to flair up.
Levels of lactose vary in different dairy products, with mature cheese and natural yoghurt containing the least amount. Surprisingly lactose can also be found in other foods such as biscuits, cakes, salad dressings and breakfast cereals. A nutritionist can advise you on checking labels to avoid ingredients such as whey or milk sugar and will be able to suggest healthy milk substitutes such as soy, almond, rice and almond milk products.
You could also consider choosing milk products that only contain the A2 protein. Most varieties contain both the A1 and A2, but for some the A1 can cause bloating and mucus build-up – common symptoms of lactose intolerance.