Can You Consume Dairy If You Have Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance can start in childhood or develop later in life. It is a sign that the body doesn’t have sufficient amounts of lactase enzyme which is essential for breaking down lactose molecules. Removing dairy from your diet can alleviate these symptoms, but there are some low-lactose options that you may want to try. Keep reading to learn more about low-lactose foods to include in your diet.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose refers to the naturally occurring sugar molecule found in dairy products. Varying amounts of lactose can be found in milk, yogurts, cheeses, and by-products such as ice cream and creamy desserts.

Some people have difficulty digesting lactose fully because they do not create sufficient amounts of lactase, an enzyme that helps to break down lactose molecules. Without proper digestion, the lactose sugar molecule can cause disruptive symptoms in the gut, such as stomach cramping, flatulence, bloating, nausea, and sometimes urgent diarrhea.

Who can develop lactose intolerance?

Anybody, at any point, is susceptible to developing lactose intolerance. Certain groups worldwide are genetically predisposed, including people of Asian, Hispanic, Indian, and African descent.

Foods with the highest lactose content

Animal-based dairy products will naturally contain varying levels of lactose. Cow's milk tends to be the highest in lactose, while sheep's and goat's milk have significantly less. Naturally high lactose products include:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Soft cheeses
  • Yogurts
  • Evaporated milk
  • Buttermilk
  • Milk powder
  • Ice cream
  • Cream

Must I avoid all lactose-containing foods?

Your tolerance to lactose is highly individualized, and you may tolerate certain foods better than others. Unfortunately, the only way to know your tolerance is to self-test by eating different lactose foods.

To discover your lactose tolerance levels, you should eat small amounts of lactose-containing foods (only one at a time) and stay home, so you can access a bathroom if necessary. Digestive symptoms typically present between 30–120 minutes after consuming lactose.

What are lactase pills?

Some people want to continue eating dairy even if they are lactose intolerant, so they take lactase pills to decrease symptoms.

These pills are lactase enzymes that help to break down lactose. For most people, these pills can help reduce the symptoms and severity of lactose intolerance, but they are not guaranteed 100% effective.

Which foods can you eat instead?

Dairy products contain protein, vitamin D, B12, calcium, and other nutrients to stay healthy. However, your options for these foods can become limited if you have lactose intolerance. Fortunately, you can add other choices to your menu to help you feel satisfied and ensure your diet remains robust with vitamins and minerals.

High-lactose foodTry this instead
Cow’s milkGoat’s or sheep’s milk, or plant-based dairy alternatives such as potato, soy, rice, or almond milk.
Yogurt with cow’s milk Lactose-free yogurts, Greek yogurt (has less lactose).
Creamy cheeses (brie, cottage cheese, etc.)Hard cheese such as old cheddar, aged parmesan, and Swiss.
Ice creamLactose-free ice cream, non-dairy sorbets, and gelato.

Although butter is a dairy product, it does not contain lactose and should not cause digestive symptoms. Remember, butter is still high in saturated fats, which can increase your risk of heart disease, so you should enjoy butter in moderation and choose other healthier fats.

Baked goods containing dairy

Most cakes, muffins, cookies, and other baked goods are made with dairy products. The lactose content in these foods should be fairly low when considering the serving size consumed. For example, even though an entire cake can call for one cup of milk, you may only eat 1/8th of the cake in your slice. Most people can tolerate this amount of lactose without experiencing symptoms.

Specific exceptions to this would be a dairy-based cake, such as a cheesecake or an ice cream cake. These foods will likely be very high in lactose, and even small servings may cause digestive symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.

Another exception could be heavily frosted cakes and cupcakes because the icing likely contains some form of dairy. You may want to avoid these types of desserts because they could trigger symptoms.

What about lactose sensitivity?

Some people with existing digestive disorders may be sensitive to lactose but are not entirely lactose intolerant. They are more likely to tolerate greater levels of lactose than fully intolerant people, but they may not be able to eat as much as someone with no sensitivities.

Examples of digestive disorders that can increase the sensitivity to lactose include celiac disease, Crohn's Disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis (UC), and other forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

If you are lactose intolerant, you may be able to tolerate small amounts of dairy in your diet. You can experiment with lactose-free options or try dairy-free alternatives. The most important thing is to follow a balanced diet with adequate nutrition. If you suspect you are low in vitamins or minerals, contact a dietitian for nutrition support. Together you can find a way to build a diet that keeps you healthy and satisfied.

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