7 myths about lactose intolerance

Over seven million Canadians have some degree of lactose intolerance. Think you know everything there is to know about the condition? You might be surprised

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milk woman drinking

Myth: It’s basically the same thing as a milk allergy

The fact is, lactose intolerance and milk allergy are completely different health conditions. “Lactose intolerance is an enzyme deficiency,” says Dayna Weiten, a registered dietitian in Winnipeg. The enzyme lactase is necessary to digest the sugar in milk. In the case of lactose intolerance, your body simply isn’t making enough lactase, and can’t handle a load of lactose. On the other hand, as Weiten points out, “a milk allergy means that the body is having an immune reaction to the protein in milk.”

Another important difference: A milk allergy can be life-threatening. A lactose intolerance can be highly uncomfortable, but it there’s no risk of harm when you drink milk.

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milk lactose intolerance

Myth: You can’t ever have milk

If you’ve learned that you have a lactose intolerance, it doesn’t mean milk is off-limits from now on. It does mean that, since you don’t have enough of the enzyme that digests milk sugar, you need to be careful not to swamp your system with lactose. You can drink lactose-free milk, for example, or take lactase tablets before you drink milk.

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drinking milk

Myth: You’re born with it

Very few people are born intolerant to lactose. “Having it your whole life is extremely rare,” Weiten says, adding: “The chances of having it tend to increase as we age.” Other risk factors besides advancing age include certain intestinal infections, diseases and cancer treatments.

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milk lactose intolerance

Myth: You usually have symptoms several hours after drinking milk

“Typically, the symptoms from lactose intolerance are going to occur as early as 20 or 30 minutes after eating the food,” Weiten says. It’s not impossible to feel the effects of lactose a few hours later, especially if other factors like a gradual buildup of lactose in your system contribute to the symptoms. But that’s not a common pattern.

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dessert ice cream

Myth: You can always tell if you have a lactose intolerance

A variety of health conditions can cause abdominal problems like gas, stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea. “It’s easy to blame lactose intolerance,” says Weiten. But without proper testing at the doctor’s office, it’s hard to know for sure it’s dairy that’s causing your discomfort.

Your doctor can measure your breath hydrogen after you’ve swallowed a hefty amount of lactose. That’s the gold standard, but some people first decide to try an elimination diet on their own. If you do, make sure you remove all sources of lactose from your diet – including the unexpected, like some kinds of potato chips and salad dressings – for two full weeks. Then reintroduce lactose while you monitor your symptoms.

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pear and goat cheese

Myth: You don’t have to worry about other forms of milk

Cow’s milk isn’t the only source of lactose. Goat and sheep’s milk both contain this sugar as well, and while cow’s milk contains more, the levels are close enough to matter. That means you shouldn’t automatically reach for goat or sheep’s milk as alternatives once you learn you have lactose intolerance.

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doctor hospital

Myth: If you already know you have it, there’s no need to see a healthcare professional

You may be right about having lactose intolerance. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to see a doctor. “Sometimes lactose intolerance is simply that, but it often goes along with certain other conditions, such as Crohn’s or celiac disease,” says Weiten. In fact, a full quarter of Canadians who find out they’re lactose intolerant turn out to have celiac disease as well. “You don’t want to miss a larger diagnosis.”

Which type of milk do you drink?
What is lactose intolerance?
Is milk bad for you?

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