Do you know anyone who can’t consume milk or milk-based products?
The condition is not uncommon and these people are classified as lactose intolerant.
Lactose is the main carbohydrate or sugar found in milk and, in varying quantities, also in dairy products made from milk including yogurt, ice cream, soft cheeses and butter. Lactose (milk sugar) intolerance results from an inability to digest lactose in the small intestine.
Lactose is digested in the small intestine by an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme allows the body to break down the lactose into two simple sugars, glucose and galactose. These are quickly absorbed by the intestine and provide energy for the body. The level of the lactase enzyme varies between individuals, as does the severity of the symptoms caused by lactose intolerance. Lactase is most prevalent in infants, but the enzyme decreases as we get older.
People who are lactose intolerant can experience symptoms that range from abdominal discomfort, bloating and excessive wind, to severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
However, there are a small percentage of people who continue to produce lactase and can digest dairy products without experiencing discomfort.
Back in the cave-days, the only time a person would ever ingest lactose would be when they were infants getting milk from their mothers. During their adult lives milk was never consumed. Only with the invention of agriculture has milk become readily available to adults. Lactose is unique in that only in milk does it exist as a free form, unattached to other molecules.
Even as agriculture progressed, it wasn’t until the pasteurization process became common that the population as a whole began having symptoms of lactose intolerance. As I already stated, ancient society didn’t consume milk past infancy. Today, we’re the only animal that drinks milk into adulthood and readily consumes another animal’s milk.
But what does pasteurization have to do with anything, you ask?
Cow’s milk naturally contains enzymes that make it easier to digest (lactase for the assimilation of lactose, galactase for the assimilation of galactose, and phosphatase for the assimilation of calcium). Pasteurization kills these enzymes. And since our small intestine does not contain the enzyme lactase past infancy, our body is not physically equipped to break down the milk and dairy products that we consume.
Generally, lactose intolerance isn’t serious and can be controlled by some simple changes in your diet.
The dietary changes for lactose intolerance should include the exclusion of those foods highest in lactose. There’s now a wide range of fresh soy milks, yogurts and ice creams which are lactose free and calcium enriched.
Many dairy foods actually have little or no lactose so you can continue to enjoy them if that is your preference. However, there are many alternatives on the market today. And if you’re concerned about your calcium intake, there are a variety of foods that contain calcium. Try incorporating more leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, kale or spinach into your diet. Other sources include oranges, tofu, peanuts, peas, black beans, baked beans, salmon, sesame seeds, blackstrap molasses, almonds and brown sugar.
Soy-based products are also on the rise for very healthy reasons. The humble soybean boasts some extraordinary benefits. Not only is soy protein lactose-free, it’s also a “complete protein” which contains all nine essential amino acids in the right balance to meet your body’s needs. Soy protein is the only plant protein that’s complete. This makes it a great substitute for many meats, allowing you to eliminate more saturated fat and cholesterol from your diet.
While soybeans have much to offer from a protein perspective, it is because they contain so many nutrients, such as isoflavones, that they receive so much attention. Soy protein enhances the body’s ability to retain and better absorb calcium into the bones. Soy isoflavones help by slowing bone loss and inhibiting bone breakdown.
Thanks to the internet, there are an abundance of wonderful recipes out there that enable you to enjoy all your favorite dishes… without the nasty symptoms lactose intolerance can cause. Soy, almond, rice and coconut (my favorite!) milk are also now readily available in most grocery stores. And farmer’s markets are great places to obtain local and/or organic fresh vegetables and fruits.
So, just remember, there are lots of choices out there. Don’t let lactose intolerance get you down. Choose wisely!
Ed: Lynn Hasselberger