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When you read advice about how to get more calcium in your diet, it usually starts with “eat plenty of dairy products.” But what if you’re lactose-intolerant?

michael smith

People who are lactose-intolerant cannot properly digest lactose, a sugar that’s found in milk and milk products. There are varying degrees of lactose intolerance, and some people may be able to tolerate small amounts of lactose-containing products. This is different from an allergy to cow’s milk, which usually appears in babyhood and has to do with your immune system. Lactose intolerance is more common in adults and has to do with the inability to digest lactose.

How can you tell if you’re lactose-intolerant? A doctor should make the diagnosis, but you might suspect lactose intolerance if you have some of the following symptoms within an hour or two of eating milk products:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

So what foods can you swap for traditional dairy products if you have lactose intolerance?

  • Trade regular dairy milk for lactose-free and lactose-reduced milk or other non-dairy milk products like soy or almond milk.
  • Look for yogurt with live/active bacterial cultures. The digestive process with these cultures lowers the lactose content that actually enters your system, so you may tolerate it better.
  • Try harder, aged cheeses (like pecorino and Parmesan), which have less lactose than regular cheeses. A hint: look at “sugars” on the nutrition label. If the number is 0, then there’s no lactose in the cheese.
  • Switch your bowl of ice cream for sorbet or fruit bars, which should contain only fruit, water, and (non-lactose) sugar.
  • Eat non-dairy sources of calcium to keep your bones strong, like salmon, and dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, as well as fortified foods like cereals and orange juice.

To combat a possible lack of dietary calcium, you might need a calcium supplement, ideally with magnesium and vitamin D, to make sure that you're getting enough of this vital nutrient. However, don't start taking a supplement without consulting your doctor.