Does Lactose Intolerance Affect Quality of Life?

November 21, 2016

Enjoying food adds to our sense of well-being. So it’s not hard to imagine that unwanted symptoms associated with lactose intolerance might impair a person’s sense of well-being and quality of life. A new study found that lactose intolerance – whether perceived or objectively diagnosed with the Hydrogen Breath Test – was associated with a lower perceived health-related quality of life.

Monitoring health-related quality of life and well-being has become part of public health surveillance in the U.S., because identifying people who have a relatively poor perceived health can guide efforts to improve their situation and avoid more serious consequences.

Lactose intolerance is an important health issue because people who identify lactose intolerance as the reason for their abdominal discomfort tend to avoid eating dairy foods (milk, cheese, and yogurt), which can lead to lower consumption of calcium, vitamin D and other essential nutrients that are important for bone health.  So let’s look at what the study found:

Researchers in Spain determined the impact of lactose intolerance, both perceived and diagnosed through objective testing, on health-related quality of life in a group of 580 adults. Forty-four percent of participants considered themselves tolerant to lactose, while 56 percent considered themselves intolerant. Results showed:

  • Believing oneself to be lactose intolerant influenced the decision to avoid dairy consumption (55 percent) more than actually being diagnosed with lactose malabsorption (41 percent). In fact, 25 percent of those who malabsorbed lactose when tested said they ate dairy foods (did not restrict).
  • Participants who perceived themselves tolerant and also those who actually were able to absorb lactose reported a significantly better health-related quality of life than those who perceived themselves intolerant and who malabsorbed lactose, respectively.
  • Participants’ perceived health-related quality of life worsened significantly as the frequency of lactose intolerance symptoms reported at home increased.
  • Those who reported no problems eating dairy foods perceived themselves to have better health than those who reported symptoms.

The authors conclude, “A self-reported opinion of intolerance to lactose is clearly associated with more symptoms, restrictions in dairy consumption and worse quality of life.”

Although from the patient’s standpoint, the experience of unpleasant symptoms may be more important than knowing if their symptoms are a result of lactose malabsorption – it’s important to have a physician-directed diagnosis to rule out other causes that could be more serious and need treatment.

If you are a health and wellness professional, you can help those with lactose intolerance turn this situation around by teaching them simple, research-based strategies to enjoy and eat dairy foods with confidence. Most people with lactose intolerance are able to tolerate different amounts of lactose. This chart explains how much lactose is in dairy foods to help people pick options that may work best for them. From lactose-free cow’s milk, cheeses with minimal lactose and yogurt with live and active cultures that help digest lactose, there are options to meet most people’s needs.

You can also checkout this slideshow for 14 Ways to Still Love Dairy and these delicious recipes to help those with lactose intolerance enjoy eating dairy foods again — and perhaps as important — to reap dairy’s benefits for overall health.  

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