What Is Lactose?

August 08, 2019

What is Lactose? And Why’s It Such a Problem for So Many People?

It’s a running joke in meme culture that some people with lactose intolerance don’t take it seriously. Sure, they know that eating cheese or drinking a milkshake will make them feel bad but YOLO, you know? Can you blame them? We all know we’d feel better if we stayed away from sugar and refined carbs — but do you score 100% on steering clear? We don’t, either. 

But what’s the deal with lactose, anyway? And if a lot of lactose-intolerant people choose to consume dairy regardless, is it even something worth worrying about?

The 411 on lactose

Lactose is the sugar in milk. That’s it. It’s that simple.

The real issue: lactose intolerance

The issue with lactose is that your body needs a specific enzyme — called lactase (easy to get confused here, we know) — to break it down. People who experience symptoms after consuming dairy have to deal with that bloating, nausea, and more because they don’t have enough lactase to fully break down the lactose in what they just ate or drank. 

In people with plenty of lactase, the enzyme breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose, two sugars your body can absorb into the bloodstream to then use as energy for your cells. But insufficient lactase means the lactose makes it all the way to your colon undigested. And, turns out, the bacteria in your colon aren’t welcoming lactose to the neighborhood any time soon. They react poorly, leading to the symptoms that characterize lactose intolerance. 

The less lactase your body naturally has, the more lactose is going to make it to your colon and the more symptom you’ll experience. That might explain why some people are flippant with their lactose intolerance while others — those who have little to no lactase — are forced to take it more seriously. 

Lactose intolerance is really common, especially in people of non-European descent. In fact, by adulthood, it’s estimated that about 70% of people don’t have enough lactase to fully digest the dairy in milk. 

The symptoms of lactose intolerance

How do you know if you’re lactose intolerant? Start paying attention to the way that you feel after you eat or drink dairy. And we’re not just talking milk. Cheese and butter are dairy. And lactose could be hiding in your protein bars, salad dressings, and chocolate. (Don’t worry. Most dark chocolate is lactose-free.) 

When you eat or drink things containing lactose, notice how your body responds. The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • A stomach ache
  • Bloating
  • Stool problems (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Passing gas
  • Headaches
  • Feeling tired

If you know you feel some of these symptoms every time you drink milk, eat ice cream, or chow on pizza, you might be lactose intolerant. But don’t worry. There are a bunch of things you can do to help your stomach feel better. 

What to do about lactose intolerance

Because your lactase levels are unique to your body, it’s all about figuring out how much dairy you can have without a problem. Learning the right level and self-moderating from there (like saying no to a milk-based latte in the morning because you know you want pizza for lunch) makes a huge difference in your symptoms. 

And if your body gives you a hard no on dairy, don’t worry. There are tons of creamy, delicious lactose-free options available today. Just keep in mind that a lot of people get the calcium they need from dairy. So if you cut back on dairy consumption, look for other ways to get calcium. You can add a calcium supplement with your daily vitamins or up your intake of calcium-rich foods like:

  • Kale
  • Almonds
  • Collard greens
  • Broccoli
  • Soybeans
  • Figs
  • Chia seeds
  • Sardines

Now, let’s talk about your dairy-free food and drink options. Take our ICONIC drinksand powders, for example. We get the 20 grams of clean, complete protein in them from milk from grass-fed cows. But we isolate out the milk protein so you get all the creamy goodness but none of the lactose. Yep, all of our ICONIC products are completely lactose-free. 

And we’re not alone in providing creamy, delicious foods and drinks that don’t have any lactose in them. Alternative milks are available in just about every grocery store these days. Almond and rice milk are longtime favorites, but we love oat and cashew milk because they’re creamier and thicker. And you can even find alternative milk options with added calcium to keep your bones strong. Splash some in your morning coffee or take a page from our book and pour in a little ICONIC. You probably won’t even miss your dairy-based creamer. 

Drink up — without the stomach problems!

Be well,


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