Growing Up in a Dairy Free World

Photograph taken by Meagan O’Leary

While growing up, Emma Smith never imagined not being able to enjoy a delicious bowl or vanilla ice cream, or a side order of cottage cheese with his chicken dinner. She believed she’d always be able to enjoy any type of dairy without a problem. Never pictured not being able to savor said ice cream as it journeys down her throat and right into her stomach.

A few summers ago, Emma realized her stomach wasn’t handling dairy products like it used to. She was concerned that something major was wrong with her and went to her doctor. There her doctor did a hydrogen breath stress where she found out Emma produced a high amount of hydrogen in her breath after eating lactose. That doctor’s visit changed her life. “I didn’t realize then that I’d have to seriously watch the amount of dairy I ate,” Emma started. “It was difficult learning the right amount of lactose my stomach could handle.”

A lactose intolerant individual has a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. Lactase, sometimes known as milk sugar, is typically found inside the small intestine that breaks down lactose into smaller units that is then able to be absorbed into a person’s bloodstream. According to, without the normal absorption in the small intestine, lactose travels intact to the lower intestinal tract where bacteria ferments it to produce energy for their growth. An overabundance of lactose fermentation can consequently cause people to experience large amounts of flatulence, abdominal bloating, discomfort and nausea. Lactose can be found in cheese, milk, and other dairy products. It is the sugar found in these products.

The majority of people are in the primary lactose intolerance category. This is where as people age, the amount of lactase produced decreases over time. As people age that amount declines. In November 2014, the National Institute of Health reported that 30 million Americans over the age of 20 are lactose intolerant. “The reason why people become intolerant is because of an inability for their body their body to produce an enzyme called lactase in their gastrointestinal tract, which converts lactose into sugar, and then into energy,” Bob Reddy, paramedic stated.

At an individual’s birth, it is around that time for the vast majority of people to have the maximum amount of lactase produced in the small intestine. From infancy to adulthood, lactase production decreases in some people — developmental lactose intolerance. There are many factors that contribute to why people become lactose intolerant like age and ethnicity. But the main cause is that as they age, some people just are not producing enough of the lactase enzyme which is just the normal course of things.
Besides having stomach discomfort, people who are lactose intolerant end up losing enough nutrients for a healthy body, like calcium and vitamin D. Dairy products are one of the sources of calcium. It is a mineral that is required for one’s body that assists with bone and teeth growth. Without proper calcium, an individual has the unfortunate opportunity of getting osteoporosis, the thinning of bone density. Over time, bone mass and bone strength decrease. As a person ages, there will be an increase of bone fractures. Vitamin D helps the body absorb the calcium. One easy way to acquire the recommended daily amount is to just be outside in the sunlight. If it happens to be cloudy or rainy on that day, try some consuming eggs or liver to get vitamin D. “After I found out I was lactose intolerant, I started taking the calcium Citracal,” Emma mentioned. “It does the job when I’m unable to consume a small amount of milk on a certain day.”

Anyone that is lactose intolerant is able to handle a small to moderate amount of lactose without experiencing severe symptoms. Sometimes it is preferred to have small amounts throughout the day to prevent calcium deficiency. Depending on how one’s body reacts to lactose, it could be possible to enjoy a small amount of dairy. If someone finds the thought unbearable of not consuming any dairy, then it is possible to test the amount of dairy products their body might be able to handle. “In my opinion, if you MUST consume any kind of lactose, do it in moderation and learn your body’s limit,” Reddy mentioned.

Trying to figure out the proper dairy free diet is difficult when a person is uncertain of all the dairy related words like acidophilus milk and declactosed whey. Without knowing what is exactly in a food product can be risky when someone has severe reactions to lactose. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Diseases, even some medications like birth control and products to treat stomach acid and gas, have some lactose in it. The most common way to stay clear for lactose intolerance symptoms is to have a proper lactose-free diet including lactose-free milk and lactose-reduced milk. If a person just wants to consume some dairy, they can take a pill like Beano to help ease any symptoms. “There are medications that can help alleviate symptoms of intolerance,” Reddy started “but I would indeed recommend a lactose free diet for the sake of health and knowing that there are many alternatives to dairy products.”

The last year or so brought new knowledge of a lactose-free life for Emma. She is still learning exactly how much lactose her body can handle. Milk here and there is still a minute problem but with the proper precautions, she is able to acquire the appropriate amount of calcium and vitamin D to keep her body healthy.

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