By Sarah DiGiulio
Doctors agree dairy is an essential part of a healthy diet – even for the lactose intolerant. Concerns that dairy-free diets increase calcium and vitamin D deficiencies, two essential nutrients for healthy bones, led the the U.S. National Institutes of Health to publish a consensus statement in February recommending most lactose intolerant individuals do not need to eliminate dairy completely and the condition may be incorrectly over-diagnosed.
Lactose intolerant individuals can drink the equivalent of one cup of milk, along with a meal, without noticing symptoms, says Dr. Robert Dracker, Syracuse pediatrician. Taking lactaid pills with dairy and spreading dairy consumption throughout the course of the day also ease the cramping, gas and diarrhea associated with lactose intolerance.
The more dairy you ingest, the better your small intestine can break down the sugars found in dairy, Dracker says. But, dairy-light diets decrease the small intestine’s ability to digest dairy and cause the gastrointestinal discomfort. “If you slowly increase the amount of milk you’re ingesting, you can increase your ability to tolerate milk product,” Dracker says.
Cutting out milk, cheese and yogurt completely could lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiencies because these dairy products are the best food sources of the two nutrients. Some foods, like breads and orange juice, can be calcium-fortified. But, dairy still has the edge, Dracker says. Besides being nutrient-packed, it’s cheap and protein rich.
Erika Mahoney suffered from stomachaches for as long as she can remember, says the junior broadcast journalism major at Syracuse University. “When I was little, I called it the bubble, because I didn’t know what it was,” she says.
Her doctor put Mahoney on a dairy-free diet for two months during the second grade. But, cutting out dairy did not ease her symptoms. Mahoney was later diagnosed with Celiac Disease, a gastrointestinal disorder that prevents the body from digesting gluten, the protein found in grain products.
Health experts worry lactose intolerance is being over-diagnosed because gastrointestinal diseases, like Celiacs and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, share the same symptoms, according to the NIH statement. Doctors often assume lactose intolerance before trying more extensive tests Celiacs and IBS tests, says Dr. Philip Holtzapple, Syracuse gastroenterologist. “It’s easy to tell people to get off dairy and see how you feel,” he says.
After being correctly diagnosed with Celiacs, Mahoney found many other individuals with her disorder who had first been told to go dairy-free. “I started going to support groups – classic story – every single person had been diagnosed with lactose intolerance,” she says.
The body needs calcium for bone development – both in kids as their bones grow, and in adults to maintain bone density, preventing fractures and osteoporosis. The body uses vitamin D to help absorb calcium. “Our bodies are constantly breaking down bone and rebuilding,” Dracker says. “In order to do that, you need an adequate supply of calcium.” And, newer research shows vitamin D may also help protect the body against diseases like multiple sclerosis and immune disorders.
For healthy bones, Holtzapple recommends adults get 1200 to 1500 milligrams of calcium per day, about 4 or 5 servings of milk, cheese or yogurt.
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