If your doctor just broke the news that you're lactose intolerant, it doesn't mean you'll never get to savor another bite of ice cream.
At first, many people fear they'll have to give up all dairy products, says Dee Sandquist, RD, a dietitian in Fairfield, Iowa. But with some trial and error, most people find they can still eat small amounts of dairy without having symptoms such as bloating, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, or nausea.
Dairy foods are important to the health of your bones, because they're loaded with calcium and vitamin D. So the trick is to make sure you're getting enough of these nutrients, whether from dairy or other foods.
"Listen to your body and your symptoms," says Sandquist, who is also a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
How Severe Are Your Symptoms?
How much dairy you can eat depends on how much lactase -- the enzyme that digests lactose -- your body makes, says Yuri A. Saito-Loftus, MD, MPH. She's an assistant professor in the Mayo Clinic's division of gastroenterology and hepatology. "That does vary a little bit from individual to individual. We don't know 100% what controls that. Presumably, it's genetically determined."
Some people with lactose intolerance can adapt. You may be able to add small amounts of foods with lactose to your diet over time and have fewer symptoms. "If you keep eating dairy, you can stimulate some lactase production," Saito-Loftus says. "That may help you better tolerate dairy products."
What Foods You Can Eat -- and How Much
"Many people know their symptoms pretty well, so they know if they can handle just a little bit or not," Sandquist says. In that case, you may be able to keep a mental tally of foods or amounts of foods to avoid. Other people get a better sense of what their body can take by jotting down notes. “A diary is extremely helpful because then you can log what symptoms you have, what you've eaten,” Sandquist says. “You can look back and see if there’s a pattern.”