What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar primarily
found in milk and dairy products. It is caused by a shortage of lactase in the
body, an enzyme produced by the small intestine that is needed to digest
lactose. While lactose intolerance is not dangerous, its symptoms can be distressing.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
Symptoms of lactose intolerance occur when there is not enough lactase being
produced by the body to digest the lactose consumed. Symptoms of lactose
intolerance include nausea, cramps, gas, bloating, or diarrhea within 30 minutes
to 2 hours after consuming milk or dairy products. The severity of symptoms
varies, depending on the amount of lactose an individual person can tolerate.
Some people may be sensitive to extremely small amounts of lactose-containing
foods while others can eat larger amounts before they notice symptoms. Age and
digestion rate may influence how much lactose an individual may tolerate.
What causes lactose intolerance?
Some causes of lactose intolerance are known. Certain digestive diseases,
such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac sprue (an inherited disorder
affecting the lining of the small intestine), other inflammatory bowel diseases,
and injuries to the small intestine (surgery or trauma) may reduce the amount of
lactase available to process lactose properly. If the small intestine is
injured, lactose intolerance may be temporary, with symptoms improving after the
intestine has healed.
Who is affected by lactose intolerance?
For most people, lactose intolerance develops over time as the body produces
less lactase. It is estimated that 30 to 50 million Americans have some degree
of lactose intolerance. Certain racial and ethnic populations are more affected
than others, including 80% of African-Americans, Jews, Mexicans, and Native
Americans, as well as 90% of Asians.
How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?
The most common test for the diagnosis of lactase deficiency is the hydrogen
breath test. This test is done at an outpatient clinic or doctor’s office. In
practice, many doctors will ask patients who suspect they have lactose
intolerance to avoid milk and dairy products for one or two weeks to see if
their symptoms subside, and will then confirm the diagnosis with the hydrogen breath test.
The hydrogen breath test measures the amount of hydrogen in the breath after
drinking a lactose-loaded beverage. Undigested lactose in the colon is fermented
by bacteria and produces hydrogen and other gases. Hydrogen is absorbed, carried
by the blood to the lungs, and exhaled. Raised levels of hydrogen in the breath
within 90 minutes indicate improper digestion of lactose. This test has a 90%
sensitivity to determine lactose intolerance. Certain foods, medications, and
cigarettes can affect the test result, so the patient will be instructed to
avoid these prior to taking the test.
Foods high in lactose
The most common high-lactose foods include:
- Milk, milkshakes and other milk-based beverages
- Whipping cream and coffee creamer
- Ice cream, ice milk, sherbet
- Puddings, custards
- Cream soups, cream sauces
- Foods made with milk
Other foods that MAY contain lactose in smaller quantities include:
- Bread and baked goods
- Milk chocolate
- Salad dressings and sauces
- Breakfast cereals and cereal bars
- Instant potatoes, soups, rice and noodle mixes
- Lunchmeats (other than kosher)
- Candies and other snacks
- Mixes for pancakes, biscuits, and cookies
- Organ meats (such as liver)
- Sugar beets, peas, lima beans
How do I know if processed foods contain lactose?
When buying food, read the ingredients on food labels carefully. Ingredients
derived from milk that contain lactose include:
- Milk by-products
- Dry milk solids
- Dry milk powder
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may need to avoid or limit
foods containing these ingredients. Also avoid items that state "may contain
milk" on the food label.
Lactose is also present in about 20 percent of prescription medications, such
as birth control pills (oral contraceptives), and about 6 percent of
over-the-counter medications, such as some tablets for stomach acid and gas.
Viactiv® calcium chews contain lactose and should be avoided while following a
These medications usually affect only people with severe lactose intolerance.
Ask your health care provider which medications contain lactose, and read the
labels on over-the-counter medications to check their lactose content.
How is lactose intolerance treated?
Lactose intolerance is easily treated. The goal of treatment is to control
symptoms through dietary changes.
People with lactose intolerance can usually find a level of
lactose-containing foods that will not produce symptoms. You can learn through
trial and error what amount and type of lactose-containing products you can tolerate.
In addition, you may try consuming small amounts of milk or dairy products
with meals because lactose may be better tolerated when eaten with other foods.
You may be better able to tolerate certain dairy products that contain lower
amounts of lactose, including cheese and cottage cheese.
The lactase enzyme in liquid or tablet form is available for purchase. No
prescription is needed. Take the enzyme with the lactose-containing food.
Lactase will help digest the lactose so the body can absorb it.
How can I maintain a balanced diet?
Milk and dairy products are a major source of calcium, an essential nutrient
for the growth and repair of bones and teeth throughout life. Calcium is also
essential for blood to clot normally, muscles and nerves to function properly,
and the heart to beat normally.
People who are lactose-intolerant don’t necessarily have to consume milk and
dairy products to get the calcium they need to maintain proper nutrition.
If you have trouble consuming enough calcium-rich foods in your daily diet,
talk to your health care provider or a dietitian about taking a calcium
supplement. The amount of calcium you will need from a supplement will depend on
how much calcium you are consuming through food sources.
The following foods contain calcium:
- Dried beans
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Calcium-fortified juice
- Calcium-fortified soy, almond, rice, or coconut milk
- Salmon, canned
A lactose-free diet should be followed for two weeks. If symptoms have
subsided after the two-week strict diet, gradually add foods with lactose back
into the diet slowly and monitor tolerance. You may be able to tolerate up to 12
grams of lactose at one time. The following lists can be used to help determine
what foods to try in your diet:
Lactose content of milk and milk products
The following foods contain approximately 5-8 grams of lactose:
Milk (whole, reduced fat, fat-free, buttermilk) - 1/2 cup
Condensed milk - 3 tbsp.
Evaporated milk - 1/4 cup
Cheese spread - 2 oz.
Cottage cheese - 3/4 cup
Ricotta cheese - 3/4 cup
Half-and-Half - 1/2 cup
Yogurt, plain - 1/2 cup
Ice cream - 3/4 cup
Ice milk - 3/4 cup
Sour cream - 1/2 cup
Heavy cream - 1/2 cup
The following foods contain approximately 0-2 grams of lactose:
Milk, treated with lactase enzyme - 1/2 cup
Sherbet - 1/2 cup
Aged cheese (such as blue, brick, cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan) - 1 oz.
Processed cheese - 1 oz.
Butter - 1 tsp.
The following ingredients come from milk and do not contain lactose:
- Lactic acid
General guidelines to aid in the management of your lactose intolerance upon completion of the lactose-free diet:
- Gradually add small amounts of food and drinks that contain lactose to determine your tolerance level.
You may be able to tolerate up to 1/2 cup of milk or the equivalent with each meal.
- Drink milk in servings of one cup or less.
- Try hard cheeses that are low in lactose, like cheddar.
- Drink milk with a meal or with other foods.
- Try yogurt with active cultures. You may be able to digest yogurt better
than milk. Your own tolerance may vary depending on the brand. Frozen yogurt
may not be tolerated as well as yogurt.
- Substitute lactose-reduced dairy products and 100% lactose-free milk for
regular dairy products. These products are located in the dairy section of
- The lactose enzyme is also available in tablet form and will help you to
tolerate foods containing lactose. Right before eating, take 1-3 tablets,
depending upon your lactose intolerance. Some over-the-counter enzyme
products that are available include Lactaid®, Lactrace®, Dairy Ease®, and Sure-Lac®.
- Many canned nutritional supplements (such as Ensure®, Boost®) are
lactose-free. Product labels should be checked.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Lactose intolerance.
Accessed February 28, 2011.
American Dietetic Association. www.eatright.org Accessed February 28, 2011.
© Copyright 1995-2011 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 8/12/2010...#7317