“I am lactose intolerant” – surely almost everyone has heard this sentence already. And it makes sense. Because the number of people with lactose intolerance is constantly increasing. In German-speaking countries, about 15 percent of the population cannot tolerate lactose at all or only in small quantities. Worldwide it is an incredible number of 75 percent. In comparison, only about one percent of the world’s population suffers from coeliac disease, i.e. gluten intolerance.
Why so many people cannot tolerate lactose, what leads to lactose intolerance, and what to look out for if you are affected, you can find out in this blog post.
Milk sugar, also known as lactose, is the type of carbohydrate found in milk. Whether from humans in the form of breast milk or from animals like classic cow’s milk, lactose is a component of it.
Normally, lactose is broken down in the small intestine by the enzyme lactase and then utilised. However, if this process does not function properly, complaints such as abdominal pain, diarrhea or nausea can occur – this is known as lactose intolerance.
An intolerance can have various causes. However, the reason for the complaints is the same. As we have heard, lactose is broken down in the small intestine – but if this does not happen, or not sufficiently, the lactose reaches the large intestine undigested and is only broken down there. This produces so-called intestinal gases, which subsequently leads to complaints.
The reason for the discomfort happens thus due to faulty digestion – more precisely, the body of the person concerned lacks the enzyme lactase.
Depending on the cause of the intolerance, you can have a primary or secondary lactose intolerance.
The reasons why the body only has a small amount of lactase can be numerous. Some people have what is known as primary lactose intolerance, which is hereditary and is present from birth or develops over the years.
In addition, other diseases can cause intolerance – this is called secondary lactose intolerance. In most cases, the reason for this is damage to the mucous membrane of the small intestine, which can be caused by inflammatory bowel diseases or other food allergies for example. However, this damage is reversible – thus the intolerance can subside or even disappear completely with increasing regeneration of the mucous membrane.
The intestinal gases produced when lactose is broken down can trigger a wide range of symptoms, which can occur in about one to two hours after a meal. Flatulence, abdominal pain or general discomfort are frequently observed. But nausea and vomiting can also occur in particularly sensitive people – but this is rarely the case.
If you experience some of these symptoms, it is best to start keeping track of your meals and symptoms. This may sound like a lot of work, but it will help to make a diagnosis.
If the symptoms are only mild, you can try to reduce the dairy products for a period of at least two weeks or at best leave them out completely. If the symptoms disappear, you can assume that you are lactose intolerant. In order to find out how severe your intolerance is, you can start to gradually increase your lactose intake again. If the symptoms reoccur, you will know that it was too much and you can use this as a guide.
If your symptoms are persistent or very intense, it is best to see a doctor and then get professionally tested. In some cases, it may also be helpful to seek nutritional advice.
You cannot tolerate lactose and are now asking yourself how to deal with it? The first step is to find out how severe your intolerance is. You can either have yourself tested professionally or check it yourself. Once you have found out how intolerant you are, you can start to change your diet.
Depending on the degree of severity, you should try to eat lactose-free or low-lactose food. The following table shows you which products you should avoid, and which have a low lactose content:
0 g/100 g
|Low lactose content|
< 1 g/100 g
|Average lactose content|
1-4,5 g/100 g
> 4,5 g/100 g
|Non-dairy products||Butter||Curd cheese||Milk|
|Plant-based food||Hard and semi-hard cheese||Cottage cheese, cream cheese||Whey|
|Lactose-free milk (products)||Sour cream||Whipped cream|
|Soft cheese||Yoghurt, Kefir||Cocoa drinks|
Especially with processed products or heavily processed foods you should take a look at the ingredients. Often these products are enriched with lactose to improve the consistency or taste, as lactose is an excellent binding agent and flavour carrier.
Foods that often contain lactose, although you would rather not suspect it, include barbecue and salad sauces, pastries, desserts or even frozen foods such as creamed spinach. You should therefore take a close look at the ingredients and make sure that neither the term “lactose” nor “milk sugar” is used in them.
It is quite normal that the above table may surprise you at first sight. It seems as if you can hardly eat anything without worrying about it. But this is not the case – because for many products there are already low-lactose or even lactose-free alternatives.
Yoghurt for example can be replaced by plant-based alternatives based on soy or coconut. Sour cream, whipped cream and others can also be substituted by lactose-free or even vegan products. Products based on oats or rice are particularly suitable for this purpose.
Nobody has to do without the milk for their cornflakes either – because you can easily make a plant-based drink yourself or buy one in almost any supermarket.
Products with a lactose content of less than one gram per 100 grams are usually described as “lactose-free” – there are no clear legal regulations, but in most cases this definition applies, as misleading the customer would be punishable by law.
These products are usually also labelled “lactose-free” to indicate a low lactose content. Clearly recognizable symbols are also often used.
However, those who do not want to rely on them or generally avoid dairy products as much as possible can opt for vegan products. Vegan products are mostly clearly declared and do not contain any animal ingredients. Therefore, they are free of milk or milk products and can be consumed without hesitation. At the same time, plant-based products are better for the environment, as the life cycle assessment of plant drinks compared to cow’s milk shows.
If you are lactose intolerant and therefore avoid dairy products for the most part or even completely, there are a few things you should be aware of.
For example, dairy products are excellent sources of calcium and are therefore responsible for healthy bones and teeth, among other things. You should therefore try to include calcium-rich foods in your diet. Vegetables such as broccoli, celery and leek are particularly rich in this important mineral. However, some fruits such as kiwis, raspberries and blackberries also have a very high calcium content.
The protein content of dairy products is also extremely high – in vegetable milk alternatives however, the protein content is often very low as these usually consist largely of water. Therefore, you should take special care to consume enough protein. You can easily achieve this by using vegan protein sources such as nuts or various seeds. You can easily consume these foods by using them as a topping for a smoothie punch or your warm porridge.
Or you can make your own homemade nut butter, which you can use either as a spread or as a topping for your porridge – here is our recipe for the extra high protein peanut butter:
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