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Clearing Up Confusion

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People with lactose intolerance do not produce enough of the enzyme lactase to break down lactose (the form of sugar naturally found in milk). Instead, when people with lactose intolerance ingest large amounts of dairy products, or foods or medicines containing lactose, lactose stays in the intestinal tract until it reaches the colon where it can cause gas, bloating, stomach cramps or diarrhea.

Last February, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a statement on lactose intolerance and health to provide health care providers, patients and the general public with the latest information on the topic.

“What many people fail to understand is that lactose intolerance is not an all-or-nothing situation,” says Susan Nitzke, professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and nutrition specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Nitzke points out that many people with lactose intolerance can consume small amounts of lactose–for example, a half cup of milk or yogurt–without experiencing any symptoms. “This is especially true if the milk or other lactose-containing food is consumed with a meal,” she says.

Nitzke urges people to consult their doctor or a dietitian (like Nastaran) before making drastic dietary changes for suspected lactose intolerance. Your doctor may do a blood, breath or stool test to find out if lactose intolerance is the true cause of your digestive problems.

Milk and dairy foods provide many important nutrients. Milk is a well-known source of calcium and vitamin D. “Dairy products are also excellent sources of protein, potassium and many other vitamins and minerals,” says Mallory Koenings, a graduate student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UW-Madison.

Because dairy products contain so many important nutrients, even people who are lactose-intolerant are urged to consider alternatives within the milk food group, such as yogurt or lactose-free milk.

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