Holiday Foods Making You Sick? This Forgotten Sugar Could Be the Reason

Dr. Janet Zand
December 23, 2018


We’re almost through the holidays and you’re probably feeling a little sick from all the food. It’s a great time of year, with wonderful feasts and time with family. But some people are feeling really sick because of the food – and it’s not because they’ve eaten too much. As you may know, the number-one reason for poor health is digestive problems. And there’s a hidden sugar in many of the foods we eat that most people overlook.

Many people have heard about this sugar. But they might not think about it until they’re just not feeling well. Here’s what it is and what to do about it.

Many of us tend to go off our dietary programs, at least to some degree, between Thanksgiving and New Year's. If these changes have resulted in your eating more dairy – such as desserts, creamed soups, and pumpkin pie – you may have been more bloated. Or perhaps you had unexplained diarrhea or abdominal pain. If so, your increased dairy consumption could be to blame. Eating more dairy can lead to lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance made news a couple decades ago. But since then, it’s been largely forgotten. Doctors don’t readily think it. The media don’t cover it much, possibly because it’s old news and there’s not a drug to treat it. But it’s a very real problem for a lot of people.

What is lactose, and why does it bother us?

Lactose is a sugar found naturally in milk and other dairy products. To digest it, your body needs to make an enzyme called lactase. Lactase helps you digest lactose. But if you're over the age of five, your body may be making very little lactase. Seventy-five percent of the world's population stops producing lactase after being weaned. That's almost everyone!

This is nature's way of telling us we don't need to drink milk to be healthy. If you can't digest lactose, you're considered to be lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is an enzyme deficiency – not a true allergy. It increases as we age and our enzyme production decreases.

Basics of lactose intolerance

You need the enzyme lactase to digest the milk sugar lactose. If you don't have enough lactase, lactose can't be digested and get into your bloodstream. Instead, it remains in your intestines. The lactose in your intestines attracts water, which leads to bloating. When lactose makes its way into your large intestines (colon), intestinal bacteria eat this undigested sugar creating gas and acid. The gas and acid produce cramps, more gas, and, frequently, diarrhea.

If you get any of these symptoms, either immediately or for up to 12 hours after eating dairy, you may be lactose intolerant. Specific tests can confirm or rule out a lactose-digesting problem.

Testing for lactose intolerance

Lactose challenge test: Stop using all dairy except for butter for two weeks. Read the labels of all foods carefully. If any foods contain milk solids or are creamy, they may contain dairy. Some creamed soups available in health food stores contain no dairy. Otherwise, most creamed foods in supermarkets do. To test yourself for a lactose problem, remove dairy completely for two full weeks. If you are lactose intolerant, you should notice fewer digestive problems. At the end of two weeks, drink a little milk or eat some ice cream. Wait up to half a day and see what happens. If you have no digestive problems, try eating more dairy the following day. Still feel fine? Chances are you don't have a problem with lactose. Feel more bloated? Dairy is likely the culprit.

Brenda Davis, RD, in her book Dairy-Free & Delicious, mentions other tests your doctor can do to determine lactose intolerance. These are helpful if you don't have the willpower to stop eating all dairy for two weeks.

Lactose tolerance test: Your doctor needs to administer this test. First, you fast overnight and in the morning before being tested. Your doctor will take a blood sample and then give you a drink with 50 grams of lactose (milk contains about 12 grams/glass). Two hours after you drink the lactose-laced beverage, your doctor will take another blood sample. If you are not lactose intolerant, your blood-sugar level will rise because your body is able to break down the sugar. If you are lactose intolerant, your blood sugar either won't rise, or will not rise completely. If you have a lactose problem, you're also likely to have bloating, cramps, and diarrhea.

Hydrogen breath test: For this test, you simply breathe into a bag to collect a sample of the gasses in your breath. Then you drink a solution containing a little lactose and breathe into another bag. These samples are sent to a laboratory where methane and hydrogen gasses are tested. Methane levels are usually zero to seven parts per million (ppm). If the level between your two samples is 12 ppm or more, you are lactose intolerant. Hydrogen is normally 10 ppm, but people who are lactose intolerant often have 20 ppm after ingesting dairy. Some hydrogen breath tests only measure hydrogen. But any undigested carbohydrates (either sugars or starches) will cause more hydrogen to be released. So if you're using this test, be sure you're being tested for both methane and hydrogen. Don't do this test when you're taking antibiotics, since antibiotics destroy the bacteria that help break down carbohydrates, and the test won't be accurate.

Stool acidity test: When undigested lactose is broken down by intestinal bacteria, various acids – like lactic acid – are produced. So a high amount of acid in the stool is a good indication of potential lactose intolerance. While lactose tolerance and hydrogen breath tests are more accurate, they are not completely safe for children and infants. This test is. If you suspect a child has difficulty digesting milk sugars, you can simply get their stool examined for acidity or eliminate all dairy and see if their symptoms are reduced.

Good-tasting dairy alternatives

Being lactose intolerant isn't as bad as it may seem at first. In the past, it was difficult to find tasty substitutes for dairy. Now it just takes a little time and effort. Once you've found non-dairy foods you enjoy, it's simple. After attending conferences on natural foods over the years and testing hundreds of samples on friends and patients, here are a few suggestions. The products listed here are those the majority of people have liked.

Crème de la Soy is a non-dairy, lactose-free, creamer made by WestSoy, which may be used in coffee, tea, and other beverages. It contains no hydrogenated oils and comes in original, amaretto, and vanilla flavoring. Many people don’t like the soy creamer, so start with a small container to see if you like it.

Imagine Foods has delicious creamy Portobello mushroom, squash, and broccoli soups (using soy milk) packaged in boxes. Stock up on a few and just heat, or use as a base for other soups. Or puree half of any soup you make for a thicker and creamier consistency. You can also blend in tofu or a can of drained, rinsed, navy beans, which increases the protein content and results in a thick, creamy soup.

Halo ice cream is a low carb and low sugar option. For more information on it and a few other product options, see the References section at the end of this article.

For cereal or smoothies, you can choose between many different ‘milks’ such as almond, hemp, rice, soy, and oat. All can be found in natural food stores and many supermarkets. Buy a small box of each one and see which you like best.

Look in the frozen food section of major supermarkets and natural food stores for Amy's brand non-dairy entrees.

If you're looking for a dessert treat that's quick to make, delicious, and dairy-free, Mori Nu, Inc. has recipes for pumpkin pie and creamy chocolate pie that will fool even the most discerning palate. Call 800-NOW TOFU (800-669-8638) for free recipes. Mori Nu also has packages of low-fat pudding mix (vanilla, chocolate, or lemon) that you blend in with a box of their tofu.

Eating dairy safely

Not all dairy causes digestive problems in lactose-intolerant people. Butter, for instance, contains no lactose. It's just a fat. Fermented dairy, like yogurt, uses up lactose during fermentation resulting in a low-lactose food you may be able to digest. Lactaid milk, which has had some of its milk sugar removed and is low in lactose, may not cause problems.

You can always take lactase pills with a meal that does contain dairy. Lactase is measured in FCC units (milligrams of lactase). You will probably need about 3,000 FCC lactase units or 200 mg of lactase for a meal with a little dairy. High-dairy meals may require more.

What about calcium?

The most common misconception is that we need large quantities of calcium every day. Since dairy products are high in calcium, many people believe they will have porous, brittle bones unless they eat dairy or take high amounts of calcium supplements. This isn't true. Most milk contains IGF-1 increasing growth hormone and leading to inflammation and insulin spikes in most people. A recent study revealed that calcium supplementation had no meaningful impact on bone health. Another study showed that taking a daily calcium supplement actually increased the risk of strokes in women. Calcium is a complex topic and could take up pages. Eat a diverse, clean and healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, especially green ones. Try eating foods that are comfortable for you to digest. That way you will be more likely to be absorbing and using what you are eating. Bone health relies on a broad spectrum of minerals – not only calcium.

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