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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?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/04/20/art.milk.comstock.jpg caption="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.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.