What causes lactose intolerance?

Around 5% of the UK population has lactose intolerance – an inability to properly digest the sugar in milk because of a shortage of the lactase enzyme. This is not the same as a milk allergy, which is more common in young children and causes a reaction to milk proteins.

The symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, stomach pain, and diarrhoea. The best way to prevent these symptoms is to avoid foods that contain lactose, such as milk and dairy products and some breads, cereals, ready meals, and spreads. Check to see if lactose is listed on the ingredient list.

It’s also worth checking with your pharmacist when you are given a new prescription, as some medicines contain small amounts of lactose.

Going lactose-free

There are many alternatives to dairy that are suitable for a lactose-free diet. Milk made from soya, rice, almond, hemp, and coconut are widely available in supermarkets; alongside soya, rice, and almond-based cheeses, yoghurts, and ice creams.

Some dairy foods, such as hard cheese, contain lower levels of lactose, and may be easier to tolerate. You can also buy lactose-free milk, or take lactase tablets prior to eating dairy foods, which can help with digestion.

If you are avoiding dairy, you may need to eat other foods containing calcium, such as leafy green vegetables and tofu.

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