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People with lactose intolerance are unable to fully digest the sugar (lactose) in milk. As a result, they have diarrhea, gas and bloating after eating or drinking dairy products. The condition, which is also called lactose malabsorption, is usually harmless, but its symptoms can be uncomfortable.
A deficiency of lactase — an enzyme produced in your small intestine — is usually responsible for lactose intolerance. Many people have low levels of lactase but are able to digest milk products without problems. If you're actually lactose intolerant, though, your lactase deficiency leads to symptoms after you eat dairy foods.
Most people with lactose intolerance can manage the condition without having to give up all dairy foods.
The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance usually begin 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking foods that contain lactose. Common signs and symptoms include:
Most people with lactose intolerance can enjoy some milk products without symptoms. It may be possible to increase your tolerance to dairy products by gradually introducing them into your diet. Some people find that they can tolerate full-fat dairy products, such as whole milk and cheese, more easily than dairy products with no or reduced fat.
Ways to change your diet to minimize symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
Reducing the dairy products doesn't mean you can't get enough calcium. Calcium is found in many other foods, such as:
Also make sure you get enough vitamin D, which is typically supplied in fortified milk. Eggs, liver and yogurt also contain vitamin D, and your body makes vitamin D when you spend time in the sun. Even without restricting dairy foods, though, many adults don't get enough vitamin D. Talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D and calcium supplements to be sure.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you frequently have symptoms of lactose intolerance after eating dairy foods, particularly if you're worried about getting enough calcium.