Got lactose intolerance? Go ahead, drink milk

Are you unnecessarily avoiding milk because you have lactose intolerance?  If you are, you do not need to avoid milk and milk products as long as you understand the amounts and types of dairy foods that can be a part of your daily diet.  Eliminating an entire food group like dairy, means you are unnecessarily missing out on important nutrients for good health.


Quick facts on lactose intolerance:

*Lactose is a carbohydrate composed of two sugar units, glucose and galactose.  It is the  sugar found naturally in milk and milk products. In order for lactose to be digested and absorbed in the small intestine, the two sugar units must be separated from each other.

*The enzyme lactase is needed to separate glucose and galactose.

*Many people either have low levels or lack the enzyme lactase for digestion of lactose, resulting in annoying symptoms.

*Symptoms generally occur within 30 minutes to two hours after consuming foods containing lactose and include abdominal pain/cramping, bloating, excess gas, nausea and diarrhea.

*Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy.  People with a milk allergy need to avoid dairy foods to avoid a serious reaction.  Lactose intolerance is a sensitivity to lactose and the symptoms are not life-threatening.

Consume dairy foods with confidence:

Dairy foods are an important part of a healthy diet.  There are 9 essential nutrients that dairy foods provide:

  1. Vitamin B12
  2. Riboflavin
  3. Protein
  4. Calcium
  5. Potassium
  6. Zinc
  7. Magnesium
  8. Vitamin A
  9. Vitamin D

Recommended number of servings of dairy each day:

  1. Ages 2-4 – 2 cups
  2. Ages 4-8 – 2 ½ cups
  3. Ages 9 and up – 3 cups

Studies have shown that people who consume dairy foods on a regular basis have better health outcomes of the following:

  • Higher nutrient intake and overall improved diet quality
  • Higher intakes of nutrients many Americans tend to be low in such as calcium, potassium and magnesium
  • May help to maintain a healthy weight
  • Is correlated with reduced risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, colon cancer, metabolic syndrome and diabetes

Ways of keeping dairy in your diet:

*Start with small portions of milk.  Most lactose intolerant individuals can consume up to one cup of milk without symptoms but the amount and type of dairy food that’s tolerable will vary.

*The dairy industry makes it simple – they already provide lactose-free dairy products made from real cow’s milk.  Look for Lactaid, Horizon Organic, Dairy Ease lactose-free milk or other brands you’re grocer may carry.  These lactose-free milks have had the lactose predigested and their nutritional content is the same as regular milk.

  • Lactase enzyme supplements can be taken with the first bite of dairy foods.
  • Yogurt already has live, active cultures with the lactose already broken down.
  • Consume milk and milk products with other foods, giving the body more time to digest it.
  • Choose cheeses like Swiss, Cheddar, Colby, Mozzarella and Monterey Jack which are lower in lactose.

What about plant-based milks?

The “dairy” aisle is no longer devoted just to cow’s milk.  In recent years, plant-based milks popularity had pushed sales to nearly $2 billion in 2013 and shows no signs of slowing down.  These milk alternatives include soy, rice, almond, coconut, hemp, flax and others. They are used frequently for individuals with a milk allergy, lactose intolerance and anyone following a vegan diet. 

However, plant-based milk alternatives are not equivalent to cow’s milk.   Most are low in protein (with the exception of soy) and calcium and rely heavily on fortification of other nutrients to approach what cow’s milk provides naturally.  Some alternative milk beverages are not fortified with calcium so check the nutrition facts label.  Even with fortification, the nutrients found in alternative milk beverages are often not absorbed as well as they are from regular milk.  Dairy milk has an irreplaceable package of nutrients not found in any other food or beverage.  In addition, dairy milk is an affordable way to get the nine essential nutrients found in it and people with lactose intolerance can still enjoy it.

The chart below shows the differences in nutritional quality between cow’s milk and some plant-based alternative milk:

Nutrient information based on one cup (8 oz):


*Nutrient information obtained from USDA nutrient database and National Dairy Council of California

So, do you have lactose intolerance?  If you’re not sure, check first with your physician. Then go ahead, drink milk and eat yogurt and cheese and cottage cheese and enjoy the “udderly” delicious products milk provides.



Cheryl Mussatto has over 30 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and has worked in a variety of settings that cover a wide span of nutrition experience.  Currently she works as an adjunct professor for two community colleges, Allen Community College in Burlingame and Butler Community College in Council Grove, Kansas teaching two courses, Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition. Cheryl also is a contributing author for, an online newspaper and Edietitians, a global free nutritional and health magazine. Her articles for both publications pertain to nutrition topics that cover a diversity of health and nutrition interests for the general public.  She is also certified as a health and wellness coach.