WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Many people who claim to be lactose intolerant really aren't, says Dennis Savaiano, dean of Purdue University's School of Consumer and Family Sciences.
The problem, Savaiano says, is that dairy foods can be difficult to digest, and people who don't eat these foods often enough haven't acclimated themselves to the foods.
According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. Although lactose intolerance itself isn't harmful -- it may result in gas, bloating or nausea -- it does affect a person's health in the long-term because avoiding dairy foods reduces calcium intake. According to Savaiano, three-fourths of all calcium in diets in the United States come from dairy foods.
Too little calcium in a diet can reduce bone growth, which can lead to osteoporosis later in life. Osteoporosis, which affects 35 million Americans, can result in weakened bones, causing fractures and injuries. Patients in the United States spend $13 billion a year on osteoporosis treatments.
A big problem with both calcium intake and lactose tolerance, nutritionists say, is that most people, especially teen-age girls, don't consume enough dairy products.
"If you only consume dairy products once in awhile, you are more likely to have symptoms from them," Savaiano says. "Also, if you consume them by themselves, as opposed to as part of a meal, they tend to be transported throughout the intestine more rapidly and are more likely to cause symptoms."
Savaiano has four tips to improve digestion of milk and dairy products. "These approaches can improve lactose tolerance to the point that people can consume diets that are quite rich in calcium and in milk and experience no difference in their symptoms from eating a diet without the milk," he says. His tips: