What is Lactose Intolerance & Do I Have to Give Up All Dairy?

What is Lactose Intolerance

What is Lactose Intolerance & Do I Have to Give Up All Dairy?

Medically reviewed by Dr. George Kosco, DO on February 5, 2021

If you’re reading this, then you have a few questions about dairy foods and how you feel after eating them.

You may have heard of this thing called lactose intolerance, but wonder…

a.) What is Lactose intolerance?

b.) Do I have to give up all dairy?

Well, read on and I will give you the Cliff Notes on what lactose intolerance is and share some good news…not all dairy is created equal!

I’ll show you how to pick cheese and other dairy foods that are naturally low in lactose as well as practical ways to enjoy a wider variety of dairy foods, so you can get the benefits without the discomfort.

I also share a recipe for full-fat yogurt that you may be able to enjoy even if you are lactose intolerant.

Lactose Intolerant Dieter? These Dairy Foods May Be OK [Video]

In this video, I walk you through the difference between high-fat dairy and high-sugar dairy and explain which one is right for you if you are lactose intolerant.

What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a straight-forward condition. Basically, your body doesn’t tolerate the milk sugar known as lactose.

Lactose is actually two simple sugars linked together: glucose linked to galactose.

Lactose Intolerance & Dieting

Once they break apart, those simple sugars are small enough to be absorbed into your bloodstream, but if they stayed linked together the molecule is too big and it can’t get out of your digestive tract.

So, the undigested lactose winds all the way down through your intestines to your colon where bacteria finally break it down.

But, those bacteria create gas as a byproduct, and that’s why you don’t so feel good.

Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance

Symptoms of lactose intolerance will vary among individuals in both the symptoms that are present and how severe the symptoms are felt.

Common symptoms include:

  • Gas
  •  Bloating
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Diarrhea

Lactase: The Missing Enzyme In a Lactose Intolerant Person

When you eat a milk product, you want the two simple sugars that make up the lactose molecule (i.e. glucose & galactose) to split before they make their way down through your digestive tract.

The only way for them to break apart is with a specific enzyme made in your small intestine called lactase.

Lactose Intolerance & Dieting

Many of us have sufficient amounts of lactase in our bodies when we are young. But, as we move into adulthood our bodies produce less of the enzyme, and we have a harder time digesting milk products.

That’s a bit discouraging because dairy foods are some of our favorite foods, and on top of that, dairy fats have been shown in research to have a positive impact on your weight.

Is Dairy Good for Weight Control?

One interesting study followed more than 18,000 middle-aged women (age 45 and older).

Each woman started at a normal weight, and then researchers followed the women for more than a decade. The study found that the women who choose high-fat dairy over low-fat versions were less likely to become overweight (1).

The speculation was that the dairy fat helped with hunger satisfaction, so the women in the study ended up eating less, and therefore consuming fewer calories throughout the day.

Also, dietary fats slow the release of sugars into the blood, which helps insulin work more efficiently, so sugar is not pushed into fat cells.

The results of this study and many like it seem counter-intuitive.

We think we are doing the right thing by choosing the low-fat dairy foods, which have fewer calories, but in reality, those low-fat foods have more sugar, which promotes fat storage, and less fat to ward off hunger.

Just FYI: My refrigerator does not contain non-fat or low-fat dairy, but it does have full-fat dairy foods.

Lactose Intolerant? Go For The Full-Fat Dairy Products!

Even if you are lactose intolerant, some of the full-fat dairy products may be OK for you to eat.

You can think of dairy as fitting into one of two categories. A dairy product is either high-fat or high-sugar.

What is Lactose Intolerance

With high-fat varieties like hard cheeses (i.e. cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss), butter, and heavy cream, most of the calories come from fat rather than carbohydrates.

Since sugar (e.g. lactose) is a simple carbohydrate, a low-carb dairy product is naturally a low-lactose dairy food.

Knowing that fact can help you in the grocery store.

Let’s say you’re standing in the grocery store holding a dairy product in your hand and wondering if it is low in lactose.

All you need to do is turn the product over and look at the number of grams of carbohydrates it contains.

If it is a low-carb dairy product (i.e. less than two carbs per serving), then it can’t have much of the lactose sugar in it.

This graphic is a good example.

What is lactose intolerance

Here we see that an ounce of cheddar cheese, which is a high-fat, hard cheese has only 0.4 grams of carbohydrates, meaning it’s low in lactose.

Hard cheeses like Cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan have less than a gram of lactose per ounce (2).

Therefore, a slice of hard cheese is a better choice for you if you are lactose intolerant than a cup of milk, which has more than 12 grams of carbs, most of which is from the milk sugar lactose.

Non-Dairy Milk Substitutes

If milk is something you feel you need, then you might want to try a nut milk as a substitute.

I like Hemp Milk because it seems a bit creamer than other nut milks like almond milk and it has a bit more protein. Other nut milk options include: coconut milk and flax milk.

There are also lactose-free milk products on the market that you can try to see how you tolerate them.

Yogurt and Lactose Intolerance

You probably noticed from the graphic above that regular yogurt and Greek yogurt are on the high-sugar dairy list, but they had an asterisk by them.

Yogurts are high in lactose. Regular low-fat yogurt has about 17 grams of carbs with about 13 of those grams coming from lactose.

Greek yogurt has fewer carbs coming in around 10 grams per cup, but can still contain around 8 grams of lactose (3).

Yet, despite being high in lactose, many people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate yogurt just fine because yogurt contains probiotics that help digest the lactose (4).

Now, having said that, if you are going to choose to eat yogurt, I recommend full-fat yogurt.

Full-Fat Yogurt vs Low-Fat – Which is Better?

When food manufacturers take the fat out of yogurt, they also remove the flavor.

So, low-fat yogurts almost always contain a lot of added sugar making them into one of these terrible “false diet foods” that may actually increase your hunger.

The challenge is finding full-fat yogurt.

I took this picture of the yogurt choices at my grocery store, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from, yet I only found two choices that were not low-fat or non-fat.

What is Lactose Intolerance yogurt

So, chances are that you’ll need to go to the health food aisle of your grocery store to find full-fat yogurt.

If you are looking for even more hunger satisfaction from yogurt, I have a recipe that I enjoy that adds healthy fats from seeds and added nutrients from blueberries.

Click Here to Download my Full-Fat Yogurt Recipe.

What is Lactose Intolerance recipe

I find it’s a great way to turn a cup of yogurt into more of a meal that keeps hunger away for hours, and it may work for you even if you are lactose intolerant.

Is Kefir an OK Dairy for Lactose Intolerance?

Kefir is a fermented milk drink that is okay for someone with lactose intolerance for a similar reason that yogurt is tolerated, and there is even some evidence that kefir can improve lactose intolerance (5).

What about Supplements for Lactose Intolerance?

Now that you know what lactose intolerance is, you should also know that you have options for enjoying a wide range of dairy foods.

For instance, if you have lactose Intolerance, you might find a supplement that contains the enzyme lactase helpful.

Here in the U.S., lactase supplements are easy to find over the counter at the local pharmacy, Lactaid is a common brand name.

You simply take the supplement at the same time that you eat dairy food.

Inside of you, the enzyme is released, mixes with the food, and breaks apart the lactose molecules, allowing you to enjoy the dairy without the uncomfortable symptoms.


(1) Rautiainen, S., Wang, L., Lee, I. M., Manson, J. E., Buring, J. E., & Sesso, H. D. (2016). Dairy consumption in association with weight change and risk of becoming overweight or obese in middle-aged and older women: a prospective cohort study. The American journal of clinical nutrition103(4), 979-988.  

(2) National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). (June 2014). Lactose Intolerance. Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance 

(3) Kimball, M. (July 13, 2012). Some dairy products may be OK for the lactose intolerant. The Times-Picayune. 

(4) de Vrese, M., Stegelmann, A., Richter, B., Fenselau, S., Laue, C., & Schrezenmeir, J. (2001). Probiotics—compensation for lactase insufficiency. The American journal of clinical nutrition73(2), 421s-429s. 

(5) Hertzler, S. R., & Clancy, S. M. (2003). Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion. Journal of the American Dietetic Association103(5), 582-587. 

About the Author

Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.

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