A new study shows that not as many people are lactose intolerant as researchers once thought. Some researchers estimated that as many as 48% of Americans are lactose intolerant. They put the portion of African Americans with lactose intolerance at about 80%. New research shows that only 12% of all Americans and 19.5% of African Americans may be lactose intolerant.

"I love milk but milk doesn't love me!"   Lactose is the carbohydrate in milk. You may also hear it called milk sugar. Your body uses an enzyme called lactase to help you break down the milk sugar so you can digest it, absorb it, and use it for energy. Lactose intolerance means that you don't have enough lactase to break down lactose. Undigested lactose can cause gas, diarrhea, and nausea as the body attempts to break it down. If you are lactose intolerant, you may notice some typical symptoms.  

Typical Symptoms in Lactose Intolerance:

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

If you have these symptoms, you might be lactose intolerant. But, other conditions can cause these symptoms too. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is another condition that causes similar symptoms. You can stop using milk and milk products to see if your symptoms go away. There are also lab tests your doctor can order to tell you if you are lactose intolerant. You need to get an accurate diagnosis so that you don't stop drinking milk unnecessarily. If another condition is causing your symptoms, you'll want to treat that condition.

Milk is good food! This new study shows that when people report themselves on whether or not milk agrees with them, lactose intolerance does not seem to be as common as we thought.  This is good news because milk is a good source of many important nutrients. Milk, cheese and yogurt are important sources of protein, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.  Many studies show that a diet that includes low-fat milk products along with lots of fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure. If you're avoiding milk because of your weight, you may be doing more milk nutrientsharm than good. Several studies show that milk can actually help people keep their weight in a healthy range.

Key Nutrients in Milk:

  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium

But if you really are lactose intolerant, what can you do? There are many options for people who are lactose intolerant but who like milk.

If you're lactose intolerant, try:

  • Small amounts of milk: Drinking small amounts spread out throughout the day often works well for people with lactose intolerance.
  • Lactose Free Milk: This is milk with lactase added to it. The lactose is broken down for you. You'll also see it called "lactose reduced". Lactose reduced milk tastes sweeter but does not have sugar added to it.
  • Soymilk: There is no lactose in soymilk. It's high in protein but be sure to get it with calcium added.
  • Yogurt. Many people with lactose intolerance do fine with yogurt. The natural bacteria in yogurt help break down the lactose.
  • Aged Cheeses: Aged, hard cheeses like cheddar, Swiss, parmesan, and Monterey Jack are very low in lactose.

Beth Kitchin MS RD
Assistant Professor
UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences

Nicklas TA, Qu H, Hughes SO, Wagner SE, Foushee HR, Shewchuk RM. Prevalence of self-reported lactose intolerance in a multiethnic sample of adults. Nutr Today. 2009;44(5):222-227.