“Can you become lactose intolerant?” I get this question many times when I am counseling patients.
The simple answer to this is, yes, you can become lactose intolerant as you age. We are all born with an enzyme called lactase, which is needed to break down the sugar (lactose) found in milk. The amount of lactase we produce decreases as we age and for some adults, they end up not making enough lactase and become lactose intolerant.
Lactose intolerance can cause digestive discomfort such as gas, bloating, and cramping. It’s important to understand that lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy. You can still enjoy dairy and not miss out on the health benefits of dairy like calcium, vitamin D and protein that our bodies need, especially as we age.
My patients are always very happy to learn they can add dairy back into their diet because there are many lactose-free and low-lactose dairy foods available. For example, naturally aged cheeses like Cheddar, Monterrey jack, Swiss, and provolone are lactose-free and easy to digest. I always tell my patients that any cheese you can slice is a safe bet.
Also, lactose-free milk is widely available at the grocery store. Many people ask me if lactose-free milk is “real milk.” Lactose-free milk is real dairy milk that has the lactase enzyme added to break down the lactose, making it easy to digest.
Another good dairy option is yogurt (plain, flavored, or Greek). The live active cultures found in yogurt help digest the lactose.
Rachel Brandeis has been a registered dietitian for 18 years. She owns Personalized Nutrition Counseling, a private practice in Atlanta that helps clients use nutrition to achieve their optimum health. Rachel is a past spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, representing more than 60,000 Registered Dietitians to the national media. She has appeared as a nutrition expert in numerous national print, TV, radio and online outlets including CNN, NPR, The Washington Post, USA Today, Ladies’ Home Journal, Glamour, Fitness, Parents and Shape, among others.