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Protect Against Osteoporosis When You’re Lactose Intolerant

By Deborah Nurmi
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

For millions of Americans suffering from lactose intolerance, dealing with painful bloating, gas, nausea, and diarrhea is a part of daily life.

Lactose intolerance occurs when your body has problems digesting lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. The small intestine produces an enzyme called lactase that breaks down lactose.

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If you don’t produce enough lactase, you may experience the symptoms of lactose intolerance. These symptoms include:

  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

To prevent the discomfort and pain of lactose intolerance, many people avoid dairy completely. This can make it difficult to get enough calcium and vitamin D, which are important nutrients for healthy bones. Dairy does not have to be avoided by people who have lactose intolerance, however. 

In February 2010, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a national conference on lactose intolerance. The NIH expressed concerns that a diet that completely excludes dairy creates risks to bone health. Removing all dairy from your diet may put you at an increased risk for osteoporosis, a serious medical condition where bones are weakened. 

“Of the three main components of a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, and sources of calcium, calcium is always lacking,” says Ruth Frechman, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). “People who avoid dairy don’t usually get enough of the key nutrients for bone health.”

Osteoporosis: A Silent Threat

Without enough calcium and vitamin D, bones may become porous and weak and may be more prone to fracture -- a condition known as osteoporosis. Many people have no idea that they have osteoporosis until they fracture a bone.

According to the Surgeon General’s report on bone health and osteoporosis, as many as 48 million Americans are affected by reduced bone density. The majority of them (68%) are women. According to the report, by 2020 those numbers could rise to more than 60 million Americans. 

Osteoporosis typically has no symptoms. As the disease progresses, it can lead to painful and far more serious conditions. Symptoms of osteoporosis include:

  • Bone, spine, and neck pain
  • Frequent fractures that occur with little or no trauma
  • Loss of height
  • Stooped or humped posture

Who’s at Risk for Osteoporosis?

NIH warns that people such as those with lactose intolerance, who totally eliminate dairy from their diet, are at a substantial risk of developing osteoporosis. Limiting dairy consumption can greatly reduce your intake of calcium, an important nutrient for developing and maintaining bones. 

Other known risk factors for osteoporosis include: 

  • Thinness or small frame
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Postmenopausal or early menopause
  • Abnormal absence of menstrual periods (amenorrhea)
  • Prolonged use of certain medications, such as those used to treat lupus, asthma, thyroid deficiencies, and seizures
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol intake

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