Lactose is a carbohydrate found in varying amounts in milk, yoghurt, cream, butter, ice cream and cheese from cows, goats and sheep.
It can also be found in some processed food products.
How do I know if I am lactose intolerant?
In most people, an enzyme called lactase breaks down lactose during digestion so its easily absorbed. For people who are intolerant to lactose it’s because they lack this enzyme. This can result in undigested lactose in your large intestine fermenting and causing various degrees of symptoms such as bloating, cramping, nausea, diarrhea and gas.
Symptoms may vary depending on how tolerant you are, the type, frequency and volume of lactose consumed. It’s also important to remember that other foods, medication, stress, caffeine or a nasty bug could be causing stomach upset and not to discount and explore these triggers before cutting out whole food groups.
It is important to note that this is not an allergy, but an intolerance which means the response to consuming lactose may not be instant, rather may build up over time or later in the day away from the time when you ate it. Lactose intolerance can be tested medically through a hydrogen breath test or the process of food elimination and food challenging with the guidance of a sports dietitian.
The dangers of cutting dairy out of your diet as an athlete
If you do not experience any adverse symptoms from consuming dairy then there is no reason to cut it out of the diet. Dairy food can provide a good variety of convenient and nutritious protein options – especially post-training and through the day in meals and snacks – to support recovery and keep you feeling full.
Dairy products are a great source of calcium for strong athletic bones and teeth, especially in developing athletes and those who may have experienced a bone fracture. A number of dairy foods also have the added benefit of many natural probiotics found in yoghurt and kefir which contributes to maintaining a healthy immunity.
If you have been diagnosed as lactose intolerant, it’s important to choose alternatives which can help you avoid poor digestive symptoms but also meet your nutritional needs and support training and performance. Lactose-free milk, yoghurt and cheese are all available in large supermarket chains. These products have had the enzyme lactase added to aid the process of lactose breakdown and reduce the risk of experiencing any undesirable symptoms.
Alternate milk products like oat, almond, rice and coconut milk won’t replace the amount of protein you might be getting from dairy. Some containing <2g/250mL vs. Dairy which is approx 10g/250mL and do not contain calcium. For this reason, soy milk is a runner up in terms of total protein content per glass to be use as a suitable recovery option as its plant protein is most similar to that found in regular milk. It’s best to get one that is fortified with calcium, which will be on the nutrition panel. Similar with alternative yoghurts like almond or coconut yoghurt, while the consistency might be similar, these can be very high in fats and low in protein therefore not providing a consistent nutrition profile replacement for yoghurt.
If you have introduced lactose-free products into the diet and are still experiencing gut upsets it might be that you are reacting to the milk protein as opposed to the milk sugar which has a different mechanism for digestion.
At this point it might be good to check back with your dietitian/doctor as you could be reacting to something else in your diet and might need more support to make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet.