If you’re lactose intolerant, odds are you’ve been avoiding foods like cheese, yogurt and butter, as well as common offenders like milk and ice cream. If so, we’ve got some fantastic news – it’s highly likely that you can add some of these foods back in – at least certain types of yogurt and cheeses, along with butter – without embarrassing consequences.
Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar that’s found primarily in dairy products, and it requires an enzyme called lactase in order to be digested. People who don’t make enough of the lactase enzyme often experience symptoms of lactose intolerance, such as abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea, when they eat or drink lactose-containing foods.
Here’s why many people with lactose intolerance may still be able to indulge in certain dairy products without issue: Butter and many cheeses contain zero grams of carbohydrate, which means they contain zero grams of sugar. And zero sugar means zero lactose, or at least close to it. (Current labeling laws say that if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of carbohydrate or sugar per serving, these can be listed as zero on the nutrition facts label).
Compared to the 12-13 grams of lactose in a single cup of milk, less than 0.5 grams per serving isn’t much.
Yogurt is another popular dairy product often unnecessarily avoided by people with lactose intolerance. It contains more natural sugars than cheese – approximately 13 grams of lactose per cup of plain low-fat yogurt and 8-9 grams of lactose per cup of plain Greek yogurt (see my summary of top 3 picks and which 3 to avoid, here), but the probiotics in yogurt actually help to digest the lactose for us.
Other dairy-based products that may be well-tolerated, depending on a person’s lactose sensitivity, include 100-percent whey protein powder (generally less than 1 or 2 grams of lactose per serving), half and half (less than 1 gram of lactose per 2-tablespoon serving), and cottage cheese (3 grams of lactose per half cup).
Fortunately, diagnosing lactose intolerance doesn’t have to be a guessing game. If you suspect that you may be lactose intolerant, try eliminating all types of lactose-containing foods and see if your symptoms improve. Gradually add products back in, one-by-one, starting with very-low-lactose foods like hard cheeses. As you add more and more lactose-containing foods, you’ll be able to determine your threshold for how much lactose you can tolerate. For example, you may find that cheese and yogurt are just fine, but milk and ice cream are a no-no’s.
If you find that even lower-lactose food and drink result in uncomfortable side effects, you still have plenty of options when it comes to dairy products and dairy substitutes – just be sure you’re mindful of limiting added sugars when selecting non-dairy milk alternatives.
Taking the lactase enzyme (in the form of Lactaid supplements, for example) before eating or drinking dairy products can help to digest the lactose. And try lactose-free versions of milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese. (And if the lactose-free varieties still cause trouble, it’s possible that lactose intolerance isn’t the culprit, but that another type of intolerance or allergy is to blame).
The bottom line: Lactose intolerance doesn’t mean that you must eliminate dairy altogether. The key is to experiment to see what works, what doesn’t, and to know your limits.
Lactose content of common foods [compare to one cup of milk with 12 grams lactose]
- 1 spoonful of butter: 0.01 grams
- 1 ounce Swiss cheese: 0.02 grams
- 1 ounce mozzarella cheese: 0.02 grams
- 1 ounce Parmesan cheese: 0.04 grams
- 1 ounce cheddar cheese: 0.07 grams
- 1 ounce brie cheese: 0.13 grams
- 1 ounce reduced-fat cheese: 0.15 grams
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) half & half: 0-1 gram
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) fat-free half & half: 1-2 grams
- 100-percent whey protein powder: 1-2 grams per serving
- 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese: 3 grams
- 1/2 cup vanilla ice cream: 4.9 grams
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt: 8-9 grams
- 1 cup plain yogurt: 13 grams
- 1 cup goat milk: 9-10.5 grams
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit restaurant initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s articles + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com.