Lactose Intolerance 101

After six years of being married to someone who is in complete denial that they are lactose intolerant – “There must be something wrong with that chocolate mousse” or “I think I just ate too much ice cream” – I was convinced that my son had inherited this not-so-nice trait from his Dad.

When I started breastfeeding my little guy and he struggled with wind in those early weeks, I was still convinced (Like most mothers, I fall into the trap of  freaking out at the first sign of a ‘symptom’ I heard about through the mommy grapevine).  It was only at his first check up with the paed that my mind was finally put at ease.

What I have learned since then, is that the majority of adults have some degree of lactose intolerance. It is extremely common and it is something that can be managed but it all starts with understanding what you are dealing with.

An intolerance is often mistaken for an allergy. Lactose intolerance and cow’s milk allergy are not the same thing. Unlike an allergy, which is the reaction of the immune system, an intolerance is the inability of the body to break down a specific food. Common symptoms include diarrhoea, headaches, bloating, abdominal discomfort and gas and many of these are also symptoms of cow’s milk allergy. Your health care provider may rule out an allergy by means of a skin prick test in which case you’ll know for sure which one of the two you are dealing with.

Lactose intolerance occurs when the enzyme lactase is lacking in the body to assist with the breakdown of the sugar component of milk aka lactose. It takes a little while for sufficient lactase to build up in a baby’s digestive system to effectively digest lactose (which is the reason that so many newborns get labelled as lactose intolerant).

There are varying degrees of lactose intolerance and can be onset at varying ages. Be mindful of the symptoms and if you think that your child may be lactose intolerant, monitor them closely after drinking milk (including cow–based formula) or after eating dairy products. Symptoms may appear within only a few minutes.

Note that even some lactose intolerant babies and children will be able to tolerate small amounts of whole milk (including small amounts used in cooking or baking) but this should always be monitored closely.

You may notice that your child has a less severe reaction (if any reaction at all) to yoghurts or cheeses compared to cows’ milk. This is because the lactose in these products has already been significantly broken down from whole milk (this is often the reason why so many parents initially think that their child can tolerate lactose only to be surprised later on).

What’s important is understanding how to deal with a lactose intolerant child:

  • Consult your paediatrician or nurse to help find a new formula for your little one (including low lactose or even soy varieties)
  • Consider the likes of a lactose support aid (like Lactaze) when eating or drinking lactose-containing foods
  • Increase calcium intake in low lactose diets through calcium fortified foods (including orange juice, cereals, veggies and yoghurts) and through calcium-rich foods such as spinach, kale, almonds, salmon, sesame seeds and oranges.

If your child happens to be lactose intolerant remember that there are some excellent dairy substitutes available on the market including; almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, rice milk, tofu, cashew nut cream (provided your child doesn’t have an allergy to any of the above).

These options can all be used in the same way you would dairy to add different flavours and textures to your child’s diet. So lactose-free living by no means has to mean unadventurous eating.

*The information on this blog should never replace the advice from your GP, Paediatrician or nurse. 

 

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