Eat Dairy Confidently: Balancing Lactose Intolerance and Nutrient Needs

Jun 30, 2020
person with a beard drinking milk

Misconceptions about lactose intolerance can lead people to remove dairy foods from their diets, but lactose intolerance doesn’t have to mean dairy avoidance. Most of us don’t have to miss out on the great taste and health benefits of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, thanks to many options available with low or no lactose. As health professionals, we can impact our clients’ nutrition by educating them on the condition and providing solutions to keep dairy in the diet. Let’s explore three things you may want to share as you counsel.

  1. It Is a Sensitivity, Not an Allergy

Lactose intolerance is the inability to break down the main milk sugar (lactose). Lactose intolerance is characterized by symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence and/or diarrhea, that may happen after some people eat or drink dairy.

Lactose intolerance is not as common as you may think. Though many people self-diagnose with lactose intolerance, the symptoms could be tied to a different disorder. Before eliminating dairy from the diet, it may be best to consult your doctor. They recommend one of three tests to confirm diagnosis:

Lactose intolerance is commonly confused with a dairy allergy – however, the two are not the same. A true allergy is an immune response to a protein, such as casein or whey in the case of a milk allergy. Milk allergies are usually more common in children, while lactose intolerance usually appears in adulthood


Lactose Intolerance

Dairy Allergy

Body system

Gastrointestinal system

Immune system


Difficulty digesting lactose, milk’s natural sugar

Allergy to milk proteins


Gas, stomach pain, bloating and diarrhea

Hives, congestion, swelling of the face, tongue or throat

Is it life-threatening?



How do you manage it?

Dietary strategies that allow patients to still enjoy dairy foods

Dietary strategies that eliminate cow’s milk and dairy foods from the diet

Who experiences it?

More common in adults

More common in children

  1. Dairy Foods Are Still Crucial

It’s important for individuals – including those with lactose intolerance – to receive the health benefits associated with dairy foods and to choose dairy first as a key source of essential nutrients. Encourage your clients to search the dairy case for lactose-free/-friendly milk, cheese and yogurt because dairy matters to their health:

Dairy is also essential to the growth and development of children. In 2019, key national health and nutrition professionals came together to develop comprehensive recommendations for beverage consumption for children from birth to age 5 – the Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood Consensus Statement. It says milk and water should be the only go-to beverages for children up to age 5. Here are a few standout facts from the statement:

  • The milk group included breast, formula and cow’s milk, dependent on age.
  • The milk and dairy food group are important sources of calcium; phosphorus; A, B and D vitamins; and protein.
  • Milk is the No. 1 source of energy, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D and zinc for infants and young children, making it a “critical component of a healthy diet.”
  1. There Are Easy Solutions to Keep Dairy in the Diet

Lactose intolerance affects everyone differently, with different individuals tolerating different amounts of lactose. The good news is there are many solutions in the dairy case – from lactose-free milk to low-lactose cheeses and yogurt with probiotics. The key is to find what works best. We recommend patients try these tips to enjoy the great taste and benefits of dairy foods:

  • Sip it: Start with small amounts of milk and increase the amount slowly over several days or weeks to find what works for you.
  • Try it: Opt for lactose-free milk – real milk, just without the lactose. It provides the same nutrients as regular dairy foods. Plus, it tastes great!
  • Stir it: Mix milk with other foods – such as soup or cereal – to help slow digestion. Or, drink a glass with meals.
  • Slice it: Try natural cheeses, such as cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, mozzarella and Swiss. These cheeses contain virtually no lactose per serving.
  • Spoon it: Enjoy yogurt that contains live and active cultures, which help you digest lactose. Yogurt is a great base for a smoothie, dressing or dip.

People with lactose intolerance can enjoy all the delicious and nutritious benefits of dairy without the symptoms if they manage the condition properly. Learn more about milk allergies, and encourage your clients to learn more about lactose intolerance and try our favorite lactose-intolerant friendly recipes.