Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lactose Intolerant or Allergic to Dairy: How to Know the Difference and Protect Yourself from Symptoms

Today, I'm happy to feature a guest post by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of online courses. She welcomes your comments by email.

This post is aimed at all the non-vegan readers in the community, and it deals with an issue that seems to be garnering a lot of attention these days. I must admit, however, I didn't know the difference between dairy allergies and lactose intolerance, so I found the article to be quite enlightening.

Thank you for sharing your expertise, Angelita!

Photo by Marina Shemesh

Who doesn’t love some kind of dairy? The central ingredient in ice cream, chocolate, lattes, and other delicious treats, is dairy, not to mention cheese and milk products. Unfortunately, for many, digesting dairy products isn't the easiest thing in the world. But if you’re starting to wonder if recurring stomach issues may have one too many slices of cheesecake to blame, you could be lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy.

Lactose intolerance is an extremely common phenomenon, marked by the inability to break down lactose, a sugar found in milk. Its prevalence varies throughout different regions of the world. In North America and Europe, lactose intolerance frequency ranges from 0-20%, while in southern South America, East Asia, and southern Africa, the prevalence can be as high as 80-100%.

If you are lactose intolerant, it does not mean you can't consume dairy products at all, it just won't be the most pleasant experience. Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include gas, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and bloating. The severity of symptoms varies, and many people with lactose intolerance eat a moderate amount of dairy.

If you find out that you are lactose intolerant, there are many ways you can still eat dairy without bringing on symptoms. The most common thing to do is to consume dairy products in small amounts and in combination with other food. Yogurt and kefir contain bacteria that help break down lactose, so those are actually great choices for people with lactose intolerance. You can also check out pro-biotic formulas that will provide some extra enzymes to help your digestive system. No matter what amount of dairy you are able to consume, it is possible to mitigate the symptoms of lactose intolerance and still include dairy in your diet.

Dairy allergies, on the other hand, are a completely different phenomenon. Dairy allergies are caused by the body's mistaking some component of a specific food as a toxin, causing negative reactions. Most dairy allergies come from an allergic reaction to the protein found in milk. People often mistake a dairy allergy for lactose intolerance because many of the symptoms are the same, but dairy allergies can be more severe and also include trouble breathing, hives, pneumonia, and, in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock.

If you suspect that you may be lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy, it is best to see a doctor and get tested to know for sure. Having an intense allergic reaction -- which can sometimes cause severe illness or death -- is not worth the risk.

Unfortunately, those with dairy allergies must avoid dairy products at all costs. Be sure to read labels vigilantly, since milk is a hidden ingredient in tons of processed foods. Inquire at restaurants about food ingredients, and, if your allergy is severe, make sure to carry an epinephrine injection with you, just in case. However, having a dairy allergy does not mean you will have to avoid all milk and cheese; you will just need to seek out non-dairy alternatives. There are non-dairy substitutes available in most grocery stores, which provide you all the nutrition of dairy without the negative effects of lactose.


  1. Very interesting! :) My husband is both allergic to dairy and lactose intolerant. So sadly he has been living without all the goodies I know I enjoy {like icecream and such}.

  2. I was always confused with my reaction, whether it was lactose or dairy. But with the details shown here I now have a better idea. I just bought some Cabot (lactose free) cheese. I'm trying it out to see how it settles.
    Loved the article, thank you!

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful, Karina! Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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