Senior Health

1/5/2022 | By Seniors Guide Staff

After years of loving harmony, have dairy products turned from friend to foe? Do you have issues with bloating, painful gas, cramps, nausea, or even diarrhea each time you drink milk or eat food containing dairy? If so, you may have late-in-life lactose intolerance.

And if so, you are not alone. About 65% of people may experience lactose intolerance at some point in their lives. In fact, as people age, their lactase levels may decline, meaning there is not enough of the enzyme to break down the lactose they consume. As a result, it goes to the colon undigested, where bacteria break it down, creating gas and fluid.

Before switching to a lactose-free diet, here are a few things to consider.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose is the sugar in milk. As mentioned earlier, if our body has sufficient lactase levels, it breaks down the sugar, and we absorb the lactose without any issues. But for those with low lactase levels, they may experience problems after they eat dairy.

There are several types of lactose intolerance. Babies who are born without lactase have congenital lactose intolerance. People who develop intestinal diseases such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease or have injuries to their small intestine can develop secondary lactose intolerance. And many people age into primary lactose intolerance – i.e., the amount of lactase a person makes can decrease as they age, leading to late-in-life lactose intolerance.

It is worth noting that some people with lower levels of lactase can digest lactose and remain symptom-free. Others are not so fortunate.

How can I determine if I am lactose intolerant?

After informing your doctor of your symptoms, they may order one of two tests to confirm the diagnosis:

Hydrogen breath test: This procedure involves drinking a liquid containing high levels of lactose and measuring the amount of hydrogen in your breath. If you are exhaling too much hydrogen, it indicates you are not fully digesting and absorbing lactose.

Lactose tolerance test: Once again, you’ll drink a liquid that has high amounts of lactose. Two hours after drinking it, you’ll have blood tests to measure the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. If your glucose level doesn’t rise, it indicates your body isn’t properly digesting and absorbing the lactose.

What types of foods can cause the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

All dairy foods and drinks could have lactose. The following foods or ingredients might trigger symptoms:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Ice Cream
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cheese spreads
  • Dry milk
  • Yogurt
  • Heavy cream
  • Curds
  • Whey

Many packaged products contain milk. Check out the ingredients lists for milk in baked goods, chocolate candy, protein shakes, instant mashed potatoes, and pancakes, to name a few. Sometimes even products such as “non-dairy” coffee creamer might list milk or lactose as one of its ingredients!


Treating the underlying condition, such as Crohn’s Disease or celiac disease, can often restore the body’s ability to digest lactose. For most people, including those with late-in-life lactose intolerance, avoiding the discomfort can be achieved by following a low-lactose diet:

  • Reduce milk and dairy products
  • Eat and drink lactose-free ice cream and milk
  • Include smaller amounts of dairy products in your regular meals
  • Add a lactase enzyme to milk to help break down the lactose (or use a brand such as Lactaid, which includes that beneficial enzyme)

Dairy alternatives that can help replace the nutrition of dairy products

Eliminating or reducing the dairy products in your diet doesn’t have to keep you from getting enough calcium since other foods can provide calcium, including:

Calcium replacements

  • Broccoli and leafy green vegetables
  • Almonds, Brazil nuts, and dried beans
  • Oranges
  • Milk substitutes, such as almond, soy, and rice milk
  • Canned salmon and sardines
  • Calcium-fortified products, such as cereals and juices

Don’t forget about vitamin D

Much of your vitamin D comes from fortified milk, so if you give up milk, you might not get enough of it. When you spend time in the sun, your body makes vitamin D, but with the increased threat of skin cancers, many people avoid it.

While eggs, liver, and yogurt can provide vitamin D, many adults are still not getting enough. If you are going to restrict dairy in your diet, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D and calcium supplements.

Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff