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Monday, May 21, 2018


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Finding alternatives to food intolerances

We love food, but what happens when food doesn’t love us back, causing unpleasant side effects?

This happens to many people, often as an intolerance or allergy. Food intolerances differ from food allergies. While food allergies produce an immune response to certain foods, intolerances are a result of inadequate digestion of these foods or components. Lactose and gluten intolerance are two of the most common food intolerances seen today.

You likely know someone who is lactose-intolerant, or maybe you identify as lactose-intolerant yourself. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a naturally occurring sugar found in milk. When lactose is not fully broken down, it is fermented by bacteria in the colon, which results in unpleasant symptoms including bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, gas, nausea and/or diarrhea. Lactose intolerance is most common in African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans. While it may seem common, only about 12 percent of the U.S. population are lactose-intolerant. If you think you may be lactose-intolerant, it is important to meet with your health-care provider instead of diagnosing yourself. Abdominal symptoms can be caused by a variety of reasons, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis from an experienced professional. Lactose intolerance can sometimes be a side effect of chemotherapy, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, gastric surgery or other diseases of the intestine, and some medications may even decrease the production of the enzyme lactase in your body, which helps digest lactose.

Luckily, if you have been diagnosed with lactose intolerance, cutting out your favorite dairy foods is not necessary. You can comfortably enjoy milk products by consuming small amounts. In fact, many people with lactose intolerance can drink up to a glass of milk with their meals. You may also be able to train your body to adapt by starting with small, more frequent portions of lactose-containing foods and gradually increasing your portions as your tolerance improves. It is also important not to consume dairy products by themselves, but as part of a snack or meal. Natural cheeses are also generally lower in lactose. Some people find yogurts with live cultures to be beneficial, as the “good” bacteria help with lactose digestion.

You may have been at a grocery store lately and noticed more gluten-free products on the shelves, or maybe you recently ate some bread or pasta and experienced some sort of intestinal discomfort. Either way, you may be wondering about a gluten-free diet and whether it is right for you. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. People who need gluten-free products may either have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that creates antibodies when gluten is consumed, which causes intestinal inflammation and damage. If you think you may have celiac disease, continue eating gluten until you are able to get a blood test from your doctor so the antibodies will be present. Your doctor may also be able to tell if you have a gluten sensitivity, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), by ruling out celiac disease and gluten allergies. While celiac disease is life-long, NCGS is something that can develop at any time, even if you had previously tolerated gluten. NCGS is more common than celiac disease, yet only four to six percent of Americans have this condition. People who have NCGS may experience fatigue, headaches and intestinal discomfort, much like in celiac disease. However, those with NCGS do not have the same intestinal damage as those with celiac disease.

If you are diagnosed with NCGS or celiac disease, a gluten-free diet may be right for you. The best way to learn about a gluten-free diet is to consult a registered dietitian nutritionist to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients your body needs. You can also join support groups that share gluten-free recipes. When it comes to label reading, foods that contain wheat, barley or rye may be hidden in the ingredients list. Be sure to familiarize yourself with ingredients that have gluten in order to prevent unwanted symptoms. With celiac disease or NCGS, you can still live a long and healthy life while still consuming delicious foods.

Food intolerances do affect many people, but not as many as we might think or perceive. Sometimes we may misperceive a food as “bad” or dangerous, or have negative emotions tied to foods, which can naturally trigger feelings of abdominal discomfort. Sometimes, simply tasting, thinking about or smelling a food associated with an unpleasant experience can make a person feel sick. For these reasons, if you think you do suffer from a food intolerance, it is important to visit with your health-care provider to get a proper diagnosis and nutrition plan for your specific needs.

(This article was written with the assistance of Annette Washington, a local outpatient dietitian.)

Abigail McAlister is a registered dietitian and an assistant extension agent (general nutrition) for the LSU AgCenter. Her main focus is adult nutrition education and promotion in Caddo and Bossier parishes. She can be reached at amcalister@agcenter.lsu.edu.


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