April 20th, 2010
06:07 PM ET

Many who think they’re lactose intolerant aren’t, panel says

By Trisha Henry
CNN Medical Producer

30 to 50 million Americans fear they are lactose intolerant. But are they?

According to a new report, many people who think they're lactose intolerant may not be

According to a new report, many people who think they're lactose intolerant may not be

Most people have some degree of difficulty digesting dairy, experts believe. One recent report suggested that the symptom trigger was not simply consuming dairy, but specifically the amount and the form.

The symptoms of lactose intolerance - diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas and/or bloating - occur after drinking or eating milk products. While most babies are born with enough of a specific enzyme in the small intestine to digest milk, this decreases and levels off as we mature into adults. You shouldn't have more symptoms at 60 than at 15, assuming your diet stays the same, says Dr. Marshall A. Wolf, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

A 14-member panel, organized by the National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Program, looked at more than 35 studies. The experts were surprised to learn that many people avoid drinking milk in fear of getting sick when their stomachs could most likely handle more than they think. People are self-diagnosing based on previous symptoms or their family and ethnic backgrounds without actually getting a diagnosis from a doctor, the panel concluded. The bottom line: People who think they are lactose intolerant need to consider whether they are getting enough nutrients before cutting milk from their diet. The panel also found that limiting consumption of dairy foods containing lactose can leave many people without the necessary amount of calcium and vitamin D important for bone growth, and can lead to osteoporosis and other adverse health outcomes.

"Many people, having observed symptoms of lactose intolerance, assume they are allergic to milk and therefore avoid it completely,” said Wolf, a member of the panel. “But it turns out, it's not an allergy, it's a quantitative problem. Even those without the necessary enzyme can digest small amounts” of dairy.

However he does say that there is still a lot to learn on this topic. "Theoretically, if you replace the nutrients you get in milk with other food sources, you probably would end up neutral but we don't know that."

The report suggests that lactose intolerant consumers should not be afraid to start incorporating more dairy into their diet. One tip, the experts say, is to drink milk at different times throughout the day rather than all at once. Also, eat or drink dairy products with other foods. The report also recommends yogurt and cheese as a better alternative to milk.

Visit the Consensus Development Program http://consensus.nih.gov/ to read more about the report.

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soundoff (143 Responses)
  1. David

    i use to think I was lactose intolerant but it turns out II can drink raw fine

    December 16, 2014 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. joshuarayborn

    Drink organic milk, it goes away.

    February 18, 2015 at 19:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Less dairy

    Honestly, the pain and diarrhea from eating cheese and cheese-based sauces isn't worth it, and I don't like to drink milk. The gas and bloating is uncomfortable. I've found I get more calcium from eating leafy dark greens and nuts than drinking milk.

    The doctors on this panel may say that we aren't lactose intolerant, but did anyone notice how they did not provide an alternative explanation for our dietary woes? We're told to eat this and that, and when we experience genuine pain and discomfort our concerns are ignored. The doctors also fail to provide us with a reasonable explanation for our symptoms, so I say screw them and eat the way that's comfortable for you.

    March 23, 2015 at 22:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Janelle

    I am a self diagnosed LI. The first time I remember experiencing the issue I was 8 years old. I doubled over in pain, and my mother frantically asked if I was OK, and what was wrong with me. I simply replied "I'm fine, it will go away soon. I just ate cheese." My mom asked if cheese always made me feel that way, and I said yes. I didn't know that wasn't normal. I thought that cheese did that to everyone. As I've gotten older I have realized that I can drink a little bit of milk with food, or eat cheese in moderation and with other foods, but the reason I am writing this is that when I was pregnant I did not have any LI symptoms. I don't know if that was because of the changes my body was going through, or maybe all the vitamins I was taking with my prenatals. Just something to wonder about. If we eat better, or take enough vitamins how does that affect LI?

    July 20, 2015 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Warren Peace

      Your opinion became irrelevant at "self-diagnosed".

      December 26, 2017 at 08:53 | Report abuse |
  5. Ali

    I found that after not drinking milk for a while, when I tried again it gave me lactose intolerant symptoms. No matter how much, or what time of day, as long as it was milk I was drinking I would get incredibly sick. I went for almost a year avoiding my favorite beverage (except for the few occasional tries now and then that always ended up with spending the next hours near the bathroom). One of my friends suggested trying organic milk. I never thought of that before. I always assumed organic wasn't all that different and was used for uppity people who want to spend more money. Needless to say I tried it and I didn't get sick.
    I couldn't believe it! I ended up drinking three glasses of milk that day and I was fine! I tried a small glass of regular milk the next day just to see what happened and it made me sick. Well, not wanting to go to a boring event one night (I know, I'm an awful person) I got regular milk and drank a big glass of it. But nothing! I had to go to it and nothing ever happened. I looked at the label when I got home and it said gmo and hormone free.
    Since then I've always wondered if my lactose intolerant symptoms were from the hormones and gmos. Has anyone else ever had this happen? Where they can drink organic but not normal milk? Please tell me I'm not crazy lol.

    February 15, 2016 at 01:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Felicia

    Lol.... Well ever since I stopped drinking milk, I noticed a huge difference in my bowel movements. I had diarrhea/very loose stools almost every day. Then I found rice milk, and I no longer have any issues. I wasn't even drinking milk every day, and when I would, it was no more than I did when I was in my late teens/early 20's. Back then, I never had issues. I'm 28 now, and this problem had been going on for a few years. I just couldn't figure out what it was. I will not go back to drinking cow's milk again.... even if the article says that it may be because I was drinking too much... no thanks, I'm happy that I no longer have issues, and I don't want them back again. What's the big deal anyways? I mean, yeah, someone shouldn't live their life thinking they have a disease if they really don't.... but is it that big of a deal that I don't drink cow's milk? I found that drinking rice milk doesn't negatively affect my intestines, so let me drink rice milk. Plus, it's probably a lot healthier than drinking cow's milk.

    March 14, 2016 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. EdwinNetherlands

    I have been going to my doctor for 1 year now and keep having problems with my stomach because something is wrong.
    I got medicine that stop the production of acid and antibiotics because there was a bacteria in my stomach which was found with a test.
    Both of them aren't a solution because because it doesn't solve the problem.
    When I eat Ben and Jerry's icecream in the evening I'm sure I will wake up during the night now from earlier experiences too.
    Does that mean I'm lactose intolerant?
    I mean the icecream doesn't even say it has lactose or how many there's in there

    April 7, 2016 at 02:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Peter Piper

    Folks, "science" these days is a bunch of horse manure. The dairy industry and the NWO elite cabal would LIKE you to drink milk, regardless of what it does to you. Wake up and follow the money and the power. I get VERY LITTLE dairy at all but when I get a least amount, it does a job on me. Animals drink milk and babies drink milk when they are very young. But animals have enough sense to STOP drinking it after they are weaned.

    June 10, 2016 at 14:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jai

      Peter you're absolutely right. As someone who has gone vegan recently I understand. My stomach no longer hurts anymore. Babies drink milk from their mothers, just like every other animal. The human body is not capeable
      Of breaking down any dairy substance from any other animal. People in the health industry need to stop lying about everything. If anyone is wondering why dairy makes their stomach hurt it's because your body cannot break it down. Simple!

      April 5, 2017 at 21:39 | Report abuse |
  9. Ethan

    Can I get diarrhea and gas after eating too much ice cream

    June 12, 2016 at 11:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dixie

    I wish I could get an answer to this: Ice cream gives me diarrhea and cramps, but not other dairy products. Milk, any cheeses, butter, etc. gives me no problems. So if lactose intolerance is the reason why ice cream causes these symptoms in me, why can I consume other dairy products with no ill effects?

    July 8, 2016 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kirsten

    My stomach hurts when I drink milk or eat ice cream, even in small amounts, but not when I eat cheese or other forms of dairy. Could I be lactose intolerant?

    August 1, 2016 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kirsten

      And my stomach is also fine if the milk is heated up and mixed with something else (for example, macaroni and cheese).

      August 1, 2016 at 23:56 | Report abuse |
    • Trystan Dragon

      Cheeses usually have enzymes that help your tummy digest dairy. Some cheeses on the back, like Kraft will actually say something about lactose. Heated milk I have no idea about it. It hurts to much to even look at milk I wouldn't even try it and see. Maybe heating it kills the lactose?

      February 3, 2017 at 20:24 | Report abuse |
  12. technusgirl2016

    Gee, I wonder who paid for these studies or this article. Sounds like an advertisement for the dairy industry. You can get plenty of calcium from dark leafy greens, fruits and veggies and even nuts. You don't need milk and in fact there is a strong correlation with increased dairy intake with an increase risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis. And you know where you can get vitamin D? From the sun, duh!! You don't need milk which is fortified with a vitamin D supplement to get it! If that's what you need, just cut out the middle man and take the supplement yourself. MOST of the world's population is lactose intolerant and I'm tired of the dairy industry trying to shove it down everyone's throat!

    August 6, 2016 at 10:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. sara may

    It's just a matter of time until lactose intolerance does off and everyone will be able to enjoy a nice cold glass of mil. Follow us to Buy the World Adorable 2016 Dresses http://clothing4style.com. Also buy online dresses. through our page.

    September 20, 2016 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Trystan Dragon

    If I don't have lactose intolerance then how come after ingesting dairy I feel like my abdomen is about to explode, I am not even exaggerating it really feels that bad.

    February 3, 2017 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
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  16. Kay

    The is the most corrupt thing I have ever read! It's shameful how influenced/sponsored by the dairy industry this doctor is! More fool anybody who believes this nonscence!

    February 24, 2017 at 04:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Daniel F

    I have been to what I thought lactose intolerant for some time now, maybe 2-3 years due to a self diagnosis. I completely cut milk from my diet for a total of one year after being intensely sick about 30minutes to a hour after intake for many years, and I went on to incorporate almond milk into my diet instead; almond milk has viatamin D and calcium, two important factors needed that one would usually receive from a dairy product. I recently dared myself to incorporate milk back into my diet to test the results, and miracously I no longer an getting the intense stomach or intestine contractions, along with the soreness in my gut. For some reason beyond my knowledge, possibly an act of God, I am finally not having reactions to the dairy. I am going to continue my self diagnosis of this issue, perfection of ones self isn't bought, it's earned.

    August 10, 2017 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jake

    It’s funny – academic research performed by universities unambiguously confirms that dairy is not necessary for any adult, especially if one maintains a wholesome and healthy diet. The majority of sources that insist on dairy being a staple in one’s diet originate from the government, which unsurprisingly is bought out by the dairy industry. Dairy is actually mainly a Western staple; the majority of the world does not rely on dairy to obtain nutrients. Historically, humans did not even drink dairy after infancy until only 7000 years ago, and milk wasn’t even a common Western staple until the 19th century. Don’t get me wrong, dairy does contain some beneficial macronutrients (as does most unprocessed food), but by no means is dairy necessary as the author and quoted doctors suggest.

    November 22, 2017 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. PandaBlue

    As a child I drank lots of milk then in my 30"s couldn't tolerate it. I can have cream cheese, yogurt, cheese on pizza, ice cream ,and half and half in my coffee. My husband makes great vanilla milkshakes but tonight two sips and within a half hour I was in the bathroom with cramps, bloating, gas pains , the runs. This only happens with milk, but hardly at all with other dairy.

    December 13, 2017 at 21:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. M

    I drank chocolate milk earlier today, produced chocolate clouds throughout the day, then made a painful chocolate waterfall.. T.T

    January 11, 2018 at 20:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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