The Most Common Food Intolerance Worldwide

Milk jug full of lactose.

Pop quiz! Which of the following is the most common food intolerance worldwide?

  1. Gluten (wheat)
  2. Lactose (dairy)
  3. Soy
  4. Sulfites (preservatives)
  5. None of the above

If you guessed lactose, you’re right. Let’s take a look at this common culprit for digestive issues.

What is lactose intolerance?

This is a condition where the body is unable to digest a certain sugar found in dairy products, called lactose.

Why does this happen?

When we’re born, we have an enzyme in our bodies called lactase which allows us to digest our mother’s breast milk for nutrition. As we age and are weaned from breast milk, people with lactose intolerance stop producing lactose. This process is controlled by a gene.

A lactose intolerant person is then unable to break down the lactose themselves. This is where the bacteria in the gut step in (yes, the same bacteria responsible for producing flatulence). The bacteria break down the lactose for you, but not without some unpleasant consequences for you. Common symptoms reported by people with lactose intolerance include diarrhea, bloating, gassiness, abdominal cramping, and nausea with some vomiting.

Is lactose intolerance harmful to my health?

Harmful, no. Can it be annoying? Sure can, especially if your favorite foods include cheese, yogurt, ice cream, milk, or other dairy containing foods.

Are certain people more likely to become lactose intolerant?

Yes. It is more common in people of East Asian, Native American, and African descent. It is least common in people of northern European (especially British) descent. However, there are individuals who are lactose intolerant or remain able to digest lactose containing foods throughout life in all of these groups. Lactose intolerance affects males and females equally. It can develop with age (for example, a woman in her late seventies may develop lactose intolerance though she was able to eat dairy without a problem before). The ability to continue to digest lactose containing foods throughout life is considered a genetic mutation.

I think I’m lactose intolerant. What should I do?

Run a simple test on yourself: try a lactose free diet for a few weeks and see whether you feel better. The trick to this diet is completely eliminating all sources of lactose from your food. That means you may need to read nutrition labels and ask for ingredient lists at restaurants. Two weeks later, evaluate yourself. Are your symptoms better? If so, and you still really want to know whether the lactose was affecting you, add lactose back into your diet. If your symptoms return, it’s very likely that you’re lactose intolerant.

I know I’m lactose intolerant. But I love pizza with my buddies when I watch football. Do I have to miss out on that for the rest of my life?

Maybe. There are various degrees of lactose intolerance and some people are able to digest small or infrequent amounts of dairy without a problem. The only way to know for sure is to listen to your body. For instance, if you normally eat four slices of pizza over the course of a football game, consider cutting it back to one slice. Do your symptoms improve with just that change? You can also try an over the counter product to help with symptoms of lactose intolerance.

If neither of these tricks help, eating dairy becomes your choice. As we said above, it isn’t harmful to your health, just makes you feel uncomfortable. If the discomfort is worth it, go ahead and indulge.

I tried a lactose free diet but it didn’t help my symptoms. What should I do?

Then it’s time to see your doctor for a more extensive evaluation. The symptoms you’re experiencing could be because of another condition.

A side note…

The cuisine from places where lactose intolerance is common is usually dairy free. If being lactose intolerant makes you feel like your food choices are limited, expand your culinary horizon to some different cultures’ traditional dishes. You may find a new favorite that also agrees with your body.