Managing Lactose Intolerance

Managing Lactose Intolerance

What is Lactose and Lactose Intolerance?

  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Cramping
These symptoms generally occur 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating a food with lactose.   

Lactose is a sugar found in some dairy products. Lactase is an enzyme in the gut that is needed to break down lactose. Many adults have trouble digesting foods with lactose because their level of lactase goes down after childhood, which is normal. Lactose intolerance is NOT a food allergy.

People with intestinal disease or injury may also become lactose intolerant, even if they were not before.

The amount of lactose you can eat varies from person to person. Many people with lactose intolerance can eat some foods with lactose by changing the type, amount, and timing of these foods. Other people may need or choose to avoid these foods altogether.

Tips for Including Lactose Foods in Your Diet

Always talk with your doctor or Registered Dietitian before making changes to your prescribed diet.

  • Add new foods one at a time. If you have symptoms, eat less of that food or skip it in the future.
  • Many dairy products are very low in lactose or are lactose free.
    • Cultured yogurt (check labels for “contains live cultures”)
    • Hard cheeses (e.g., Swiss, cheddar, Parmesan)
    • Butter
    • Lactose-free milk (e.g., Lactaid® or store brand equivalent)
  • If you wish to drink regular milk, try taking a little at a time (like ½ cup).  Many people can tolerate up to 2 cups of milk per day when taken in smaller servings spread out over the course of the day.
  • Eat lactose foods with a meal instead of alone.
  • Take a lactase enzyme supplement with your milk or milk products, such as Lactaid® or generic equivalent.

Tips for Eliminating Lactose

For people who need to limit or eliminate lactose, the UVAHS handout called “Lactose Content of Common Foods” will help you identify sources of lactose. Remember, many people with lactose intolerance can eat or drink 12 grams or more of lactose per day, especially if they follow the tips above.

Foods made from milk also contain lactose. Examples are pudding, cream soups, ice cream, cream or cheese sauce, etc. The amount of lactose in a product will depend on the amount of milk used. Sometimes even baked items, instant mixes, salad dressings, and other foods you may not think of also contain lactose. Look on the food label for the ingredients listed below. You might need to avoid foods made with these ingredients.

Ingredients that   may Signal Lactose



Milk sugar



Non-fat dry milk powder


Milk by-products

Skim milk solids

Dry milk solids

Milk solids


Lactose is also sometimes in medications. You can check for lactose on the label, but it does not have to be listed. Ask your pharmacist to help you if your symptoms don’t go away even when you are not eating or drinking lactose foods. Ask your doctor to prescribe a lactose-free alternative if one exists.

Specialty Products

If you are not able to tolerate lactose foods using these tips, special products may help. Keep in mind that not everyone with lactose intolerance needs special products. You may want to try the tips provided in this handout before trying the more costly specialty products.

Note that milk from all mammals, including goats, CONTAINS lactose.

Lactose Free Milk - available in the dairy section of most grocery stores.

  • Choose from nonfat, 1%, 2%, and whole milk varieties.
  • Contains the same nutrition as regular milk, including calcium and vitamin D.
  • Costs a bit more than regular milk.
  • Tastes a little sweeter than regular milk.

Lactase Enzyme Supplements – available in caplet or chewable form in the digestive aid section of the grocery store or pharmacy.

  • Contain the enzyme lactase - needed for the digestion of lactose.
  • May not be needed with some dairy products (see above).
  • The amount suggested on the label may not be needed. Try a smaller dose and increase only if needed.
  • Store brand varieties are available and are usually cheaper.

Milk Alternatives – Plant-based milk alternatives such as soy, rice, hemp, oat, coconut, flax, pea, almond, and cashew milk are all lactose free. If you plan to use one of these, be sure to read the nutrition labels carefully and choose a brand that specifically states it contains calcium and vitamin D. The table below shows how much of these nutrients is in fortified cow’s milk and how much adults need daily. Ask you Registered Dietitian for help.

Note that these plant-based milk alternatives do not always work the same in cooking and baking as cow’s milk. This is because they generally have a lot less protein than cow’s milk. They are not always stable at high temperatures. And, sometimes they have natural or added flavors that may not work with the recipe.

In general, soy milk and pea milk (e.g., Ripple™ brand, available at Target) work best in baking, sauces, and savory dishes. Rice milk works well in desserts because it is naturally a little sweet. Coconut milk has the most fat of any plant-based milk, so it can be used as a substitute for heavy cream and is also tasty in curry dishes. However, it will impart a coconut flavor that may not be desired in all recipes.

A Word on Calcium and Vitamin D

If you are on a low lactose diet, talk to your doctor and/or Registered Dietitian about your calcium and vitamin D intake. Studies have shown that people with lactose intolerance often do not take in enough of these nutrients. Low calcium and vitamin D intake increases the risk of osteoporosis, a disease in which your bones become fragile and break easily.

A Registered Dietitian can help you determine whether you are getting enough of these nutrients in your diet.


Daily requirement for adults

Amount in 8 oz cow’s milk


1000   mg (1200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70)

314   mg

Vitamin D

600   international units (900 IU over age 70)

98   international units

Additional information on lactose intolerance can be found at the University of Virginia Health System Digestive Health Center website: