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Diarrhea and Lactose Intolerance: When Dairy Is the Problem

Where Lactose May Be Hiding

Although milk is the food most associated with lactose intolerance, any dairy product may cause diarrhea and other symptoms. Lactose can also be found in:

  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Cream cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Ice cream

But milk and dairy products are not the only offenders. In fact, lactose may also be found in foods you don’t expect, including:

  • Calcium-fortified breads
  • Cereals and baked goods
  • Powdered meal replacements
  • Instant potatoes, soups, and breakfast drinks
  • Pancake, biscuit, and cookie mixes
  • Margarine
  • Salad dressings
  • Products labeled as non-dairy, such as whipped toppings and creamers, which may include milk-derived ingredients

These foods also may trigger symptoms of loose stool, bloating, gas, and stomach cramps. That’s especially true if you are highly sensitive to lactose or if you eat large amounts of these foods.

If you are lactose intolerant, the best way to avoid symptoms is by reading food labels. Steer clear of products listed with the following ingredients:

  • Whey
  • Curds
  • Milk by-products
  • Nonfat dry milk powder
  • Dry milk solids

Lactose also is found in more than 20% of prescription drugs and in some over-the-counter medicines. Birth control pills may contain lactose. Even medicines that lactose-intolerant people may take for relief, such as tablets to reduce stomach acid and gas, can contain lactose. Ask your pharmacist or health care provider if a medication contains lactose before taking it.

Lactose Intolerance: How to Get Enough Calcium

If you cut back on dairy products to control diarrhea and other symptoms of lactose intolerance, it’s especially important for you to get enough calcium in your diet. Calcium is one of the body’s essential nutrients, promoting growth and repair of bones. It also wards off osteoporosis, a condition that leaves bones thin and easily breakable.

If you are lactose intolerant, a number of nondairy foods can help you get enough calcium in your diet. They include:

  • Dark, leafy greens and vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and kale
  • Salmon and tuna
  • Beans and legumes
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk and cheeses
  • Oranges

You may also be able to eat yogurt with active cultures. Some studies have found the active cultures in yogurt produce lactase enzymes, which can help you digest the lactose in the yogurt. Probiotic yogurts will also provide good bacteria without eating dairy.

If you avoid milk because of lactose intolerance, you’ll also need to make sure you get enough vitamin D. Vitamin D works with calcium to keep bones strong, and milk is a major source of vitamin D. If you are lactose intolerant, ask your health care provider if you need a calcium and vitamin D supplement.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on July 07, 2012

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