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Lactose-free diet: Foods to eat and avoid

Lactose-free diet has its own pros and cons. While mostly recommended for people with lactose intolerance, can others follow it? Know everything about it here.

As people prioritise following a healthy diet, a common adjustment they make is shifting to lactose-free options. Lactose, the sugar found in milk, breaks down into glucose and galactose and, when fermented, produces lactic acid, also known as milk sugar. While dairy products play a significant role in a balanced diet, reducing or eliminating them due to health reasons or out of choice requires careful supplementation with alternative foods to prevent deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. Failing to do so might result in nutritional imbalances. So, let us understand all about a lactose-free diet!

Health benefits of a lactose-free diet

A lactose-free diet eliminates foods that have lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. It includes alternatives such as lactose-free milk, soy milk, almond milk, and dairy-free cheeses. “This diet is important and beneficial for people with lactose intolerance, as consuming lactose can lead to digestive discomfort, bloating, and diarrhoea,” says nutritionist Avni Kaul. Here are 6 advantages of following a lactose-free diet:

1. Improves digestion

The most immediate and noticeable benefit of a lactose-free diet is improved digestive health for those with lactose intolerance. Symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, gas, and stomach cramps are common after consuming dairy, especially in lactose-intolerant individuals. “By eliminating lactose from the diet, these symptoms can be avoided, leading to a more comfortable and efficient digestive process. This improvement in digestive health can also reduce inflammation and prevent secondary issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) flare-ups,” explains Kaul.

Also read: 5 symptoms that you might be lactose intolerance 

2. Enhances nutrient absorption

When a person suffers from lactose intolerance, feeding your body with a lactose diet can disrupt digestion. On the other hand, avoiding lactose can boost the functioning of the digestive system, improving the absorption of essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals from other foods. This can lead to better overall nutrition and health.

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lactose-free diet
Lactose-free diet can help with nutrient absorption! Image courtest: Adobe Stock

3. Promotes skin health

Dairy consumption can contribute to excess oil production which can aggravate problems such as acne. A study published by Clinical Nutrition, there is a strong link between dairy, total milk, whole fat, low-fat, and skimmed milk consumption and acne. Avni says, “While the exact mechanism is not entirely understood, it is believed that certain hormones and bioactive molecules in milk can trigger or exacerbate acne. Hence, following a lactose-free diet not only reduces the risk of acne but also promotes a clear skin tone.”

4. Better weight management

For many people, especially those who are lactose intolerant, consuming dairy products can lead to bloating and water retention, which can affect weight management efforts. “By eliminating lactose, you may find it easier to maintain a healthy weight and avoid the discomfort of bloating. Additionally, many lactose-free dieters turn to plant-based alternatives such as almond, soy, or oat milk, which can be lower in calories and fat compared to full-fat dairy products,” according to Kaul. This can contribute to a lower caloric intake and support weight loss.

5. Manages thyroid

Dairy products generally form mucus in the body. Not only this, the protein in dairy might lead to increased inflammation in essential parts of the body, such as the thyroid gland and digestive tract, in those with lactose intolerance. Cutting dairy from your diet can enhance your energy levels, which can be associated with thyroid health.

6. Improves heart health

Many dairy products, especially full-fat versions, contain high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol, which can negatively impact heart health, according to a study published by the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. So, following a lactose-free diet that includes low-fat or non-dairy alternatives can help reduce the intake of these unhealthy fats. This, in turn, can aid in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Are there any side effects of a lactose-free diet?

While a lactose-free diet could alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance, it might lead to potential side effects. Here are 3 side effects you should know:

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  • Nutrient deficiencies: Dairy products are a primary source of calcium, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients. Without proper substitutes, deficiencies can occur.
  • Bone health problems: Long-term lack of calcium and vitamin D may affect bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
  • Digestive issues: Some people may experience digestive problems when consuming lactose-free alternatives, such as bloating or gas from high-fibre plant-based milk.
A woman with stomach ache
The side effects of a lactose-free diet involve digestion issues. Image courtesy: Freepik

To mitigate these effects while following a lactose-free diet, it is essential to find balanced, nutrient-rich alternatives and ensure a well-rounded diet. You may consult with your doctor for a healthy diet plan!

Foods to eat in lactose-free diet

When following a lactose-free diet, it’s essential to choose foods that provide necessary nutrients while avoiding lactose. Here are some foods to consider:

1. Dairy alternatives

  • Lactose-free milk: It is available in most grocery stores and has the same nutrients as regular milk but without lactose.
  • Plant-based milk: Almond, soy, oat, coconut, and rice milk are popular choices. Ensure they are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • Non-dairy yoghurts: Made from almond, coconut, or soy milk, these are good sources of probiotics.
  • Non-dairy cheeses: Options made from nuts, soy, or other plant sources can replace traditional cheese.

2. Protein-rich foods

  • Lean meats: Chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and lamb.
  • Fish and seafood: Salmon, tuna, shrimp, and other seafood are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Eggs: A versatile and nutritious protein source.
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas provide protein and fibre.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.

3. Grains and carbohydrates

  • Whole grains: Brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, and whole wheat products.
  • Pasta and bread: Many are naturally lactose-free. Do not forget to check the labels.

4. Fruits and vegetables

  • Fresh fruits: Apples, berries, bananas, oranges, and melons.
  • Vegetables: Leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes.

5. Snacks and condiments

  • Nut butter: Almond, peanut, and cashew butter.
  • Hummus: Made from chickpeas and tahini, a healthy dip.
  • Dark chocolate: Check labels to ensure it’s dairy-free.

6. Beverages

  • Herbal teas: Naturally free from lactose.
  • Juices: Drink fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
tea with roses
You may drink herbal tea on a lactose free diet. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Incorporating these foods into your diet ensures a balanced intake of essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, vitamin D, etc., while following a lactose-free diet.

Foods to avoid in a lactose-free diet

In a lactose-free diet, it is important to avoid foods containing lactose, like dairy products in the form of milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter, buttermilk, sour cream, whipped cream, and ice cream. Besides, watch out for hidden sources of lactose in processed foods like baked goods, salad dressings, and certain medications. Be careful with foods labeled as non-dairy, as they might still contain lactose.

Check ingredient lists for milk solids, whey, or curds, which indicate the presence of lactose. However, certain dairy products contain lactose in low amounts and can be consumed by many with lactose intolerance.

For instance, butter contains less lactose and has less chance of causing any severe symptoms for those with lactose intolerance unless a very high quantity is consumed, as per the Nutrients Journal. Also, clarified butter has little to no lactose. Other dairy products that contain low amounts of lactose are kefir, skyr, aged or hard cheese, and heavy cream.

Who should go for a lactose-free diet?

Individuals diagnosed with lactose intolerance, lactose sensitivity, or those experiencing digestive discomfort after consuming dairy products must consider adopting a lactose-free diet. “This dietary approach could help alleviate symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, and diarrhoea, improving overall digestive comfort and quality of life,” says the expert.

Health Shots Recommends: Best almond milk brands in India: 5 picks for lactose intolerant and vegan consumers

Who should not go for a lactose-free diet?

A person without lactose intolerance or sensitivity, and those who can tolerate dairy products without experiencing any digestive discomfort, should not necessarily adopt a lactose-free diet. Dairy products are important sources of essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, which may be lacking in a lactose-free diet if not adequately replaced.

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