Lactose Intolerance: finding an alternative for dairy products

Lactose intolerance is very common. It is thought to affect around 75% of the world’s population. People with lactose intolerance experience digestive problems when they eat dairy, which can have a negative effect on the quality of life.

Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in dairy products. It can cause various symptoms, including bloating, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. People with lactose intolerance don’t make enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest lactose.

Lactose is a disaccharide, meaning that it consists of two sugars. It is made up of one molecule each of the simple sugar glucose and galactose. The lactase enzyme is needed to break lactose down into glucose and galactose, which can then be absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy. Without sufficient lactase, lactose moves through your gut undigested and causes digestive symptoms. Lactose is also found in breast milk, and almost everyone is born with the ability to digest it. It is very rare to see lactose intolerance in children under the age of five.

There are two main types of lactose intolerance, which have different causes: Primary lactose intolerance is the most common. It is caused by a decrease in lactase production with age, Secondary lactose intolerance is rare. It is caused by illness, such as a stomach bug or a more serious issue like celiac disease.

If not managed properly, lactose intolerance can cause severe digestive problems. The most common symptoms: Bloating, Abdominal cramps, Gas and, Diarrhoea. Some people also experience an urgency to go to the toilet, nausea, vomiting, pain in the lower belly and occasional constipation.

Diarrhoea occurs due to undigested lactose in your small intestine, which causes water to move into your digestive tract. Once it reaches your colon, the lactose is fermented by the bacteria in your gut, forming short-chain fatty acids and gas. This causes the bloating, flatulence and pain. The severity of symptoms can vary, depending on how much lactose you can tolerate and how much you have eaten

Dairy is the term used to describe milk or products made from milk. Dairy products are highly nutritious and important sources of protein, calcium and vitamins like A, B12 and D. This nutrient combination is great for your bones. Including dairy in your diet is linked to higher bone mineral density, which may help reduce the risk of bone fractures as you get older. Dairy products have also been linked with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. However, people with lactose intolerance may need to cut back or remove dairy products from their diets, potentially missing out on some nutrients. 

Lactose is found in dairy foods and products that contain dairy. The following dairy products contain lactose: Cow’s milk (all types), Goat’s Milk, Cheese (including hard and soft cheeses), Ice cream, Yogurt, Butter, etc. Foods that have some form of dairy as an ingredient may also contain lactose, including Foods made with a milky sauce, Biscuits and cookies, Chocolate and confectionary, like boiled sweets and candies, Bread and baked goods, Breakfast cereals, instant soups and sauces, Processed meats, Ready meals, Sauces and gravies, Potato chips, nuts, etc. You can check if a product contains dairy by looking at the label.

One should not get confused if a product contains lactic acid, lactalbumin, lactate or casein. These ingredients aren’t lactose. All dairy foods contain lactose, but this doesn’t mean they are totally off-limits for people with lactose intolerance.

Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of lactose. For example, some people can tolerate the small amount of milk in tea but not the amount you would get from a bowl of cereal. Some types of dairy are also naturally low in lactose when eaten in their usual portions. Certain types of cheese also have less than 1 gram of lactose per serving. This includes cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, etc.  Interestingly, yoghurt tends to cause fewer symptoms in people with lactose intolerance than other types of dairy. Dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium, but eating dairy isn’t essential.

If you’re experiencing cramps, bloating, and diarrhoea after drinking milk or eating and drinking milk products, your doctor may want to test you for lactose intolerance. Confirmatory tests measure lactase activity in the body. These tests include:

Lactose intolerance test: A lactose intolerance test is a blood test that measures your body’s reaction to a liquid that contains high lactose levels.

Hydrogen breath test: A hydrogen breath test measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath after consuming a drink high in lactose. If your body is unable to digest the lactose, the bacteria in your intestine will break it down instead. The process by which bacteria break down sugars like lactose is called fermentation. Fermentation releases hydrogen and other gases. These gases are absorbed and eventually exhaled. If you aren’t fully digesting lactose, the hydrogen breath test will show a higher than normal amount of hydrogen in your breath.

Stool acidity test: This test is more often done in infants and children. It measures the amount of lactic acid in a stool sample. Lactic acid accumulates when bacteria in the intestine ferment the undigested lactose.

Some good non-dairy sources of calcium include Calcium-fortified foods, Boned fish, High-calcium plants food. If you don’t want to give up dairy, then there are a few natural treatments that can help.

Enzyme Supplements: It’s possible to buy enzymes to help digest lactose. These are tablets you swallow or drops you add to foods and drinks. However, the effectiveness of these products seems to vary from person to person.

Lactose Exposure: If you are lactose intolerant, regularly including lactose in your diet could help your body adapt to it. So far, studies on this are few and far between, but initial studies have shown some positive results

Probiotics and Prebiotics: Probiotics are microorganisms that provide health benefits when consumed. Prebiotics are types of fibre that function as food for these bacteria. They feed the beneficial bacteria you already have in your gut so that they thrive. Both probiotics and prebiotics have been shown to reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance, although most studies so far have been small.

Yet, many of us would still like to consume milk in some shape or form. Not only do dairy products add a lot to our daily meals, but they are also high in calcium and contain vitamin D, both of which are crucial for staying healthy. Therefore, what are the dairy alternatives when you are lactose intolerant? 

Below you’ll find a few alternatives:

Almond Milk: Almond milk has the look and feels of milk, although it has a nuttier taste, of course. It may contain less protein than regular milk, but it is still high in the nutrients; calcium, fibre and vitamin D. Great for breakfast cereal or a milkshake with a nutty taste

Coconut Milk: Coconut milk is also popular and is more similar to full cream milk as it is denser than regular milk and full-bodied. It may not be high in protein, but it contains a high amount of saturated fat, which should be avoided or limited depending on your genetic sensitivity and if you are looking to lose weight.

Hemp Milk: This milk comes from hemp seeds, which may explain people who drink it describe it as being thicker and grittier than the real thing. The good thing though is that the seeds are high in protein and omega 3 fatty acids, so the nutritional content of this milk is to be desired.

Soy Milk: Probably the most commonly known one, it is very high in protein and a vegan option that contains many other nutrients such as potassium

Ice cream alternative: You can go for a lactose-free variant, but it is also possible to make ice cream by blending bananas and berries as well as substituting sherbet.

Butter alternative: When cooking, choose to use olive oil and spread peanut butter or avocado on your toast in the morning. You can use coconut oil in baked goods.

Cheese alternative: Cheese already has a significantly reduced amount of lactose that some people who are lactose intolerant can still digest. However, if you still find that eating fermented cheese with a lower lactose profile doesn’t work for you then you can purchase lactose-free cheeses. The fact is that nothing truly replaces cheese when you think of pizza and toasted sandwiches, but at least there is an alternative for everyone to enjoy. These cheeses are made from what the milk alternatives are made from as well.

Thus, if you still crave milk but your body can’t handle it there are a number of alternatives that are relatively available that are both nutritious and imitate milk so that you aren’t left craving it.

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