Last month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – convened a panel to assess the available evidence on lactose intolerance and health.
The NIH website reports that many individuals with diagnosed or perceived lactose intolerance avoid dairy products, which constitute a readily accessible source of calcium, other nutrients and vitamin D (when fortified).
If consumers aren’t getting enough of these nutrients they’re at greater risk for chronic health problems, including osteoporosis and decreased bone health.
“A lot of people who think they have lactose intolerance, don’t,” said Dr. Frederick Suchy, chief of pediatric hepatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the panel and conference chairperson.
“They may have other conditions, or they may just need to consume smaller amounts of dairy products. Whether they are truly lactose intolerant or not, it is important that they meet recommended intakes of calcium and other essential nutrients.”
Often consumers are self-diagnosing
Many individuals mistakenly ascribe symptoms of a variety of intestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, to lactose intolerance and avoid lactose-containing foods without undergoing testing.
This misconception becomes intergenerational when self-diagnosed lactose-intolerant parents place their children on lactose-restricted diets in the mistaken belief that they will experience symptoms.
For diagnosed lactose intolerant individuals, multiple management strategies have been proposed.
These include distributing lactose intake throughout the day and/or combining it with other foods, choosing non-dairy foods rich in the nutrients found in dairy products, taking nutritional supplements, ingesting incremental amounts of dairy products over time to increase tolerance, consuming reduced-lactose dairy products, and using probiotics (in supplements and foods).
The panel emphasized the need for additional research to better understand the effectiveness of these approaches for decreasing symptoms, optimizing nutritional intakes, and improving health outcomes, with special emphasis on diverse populations.