Avoiding Calcium Deficiencies on a Lactose Intolerant Diet
Calcium plays a number of important roles in the body; most notably for the creation of a strong and healthy skeleton. At the same time, one of the most common sources of calcium comes in the form of diary products like milk and cheese.This places individuals with lactose intolerance at a potential disadvantage.
In the absence of dairy in the diet, calcium deficiencies may be more likely, and as a result skeletal weakness or fractures can ensue. Fortunately, there are a number of effective solutions that can help to avoid the risks of calcium deficiencies for sufferers of lactose intolerance.
What is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose is the most common sugar to be found in dairy products. When we drink milk, an enzyme in the gut called “lactase” breaks down the lactose molecules into glucose and galactose which are absorbed and used an an energy source.
As babies, we are designed to be able to digest milk efficiently, but as we age the levels of lactase in our body can fall. This reduces our ability to efficiently digest dairy products. In these cases, the lactose remains in the digestive system and is fermented by bacteria, resulting in the appearance of lactose intolerance symptoms.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include:
- Excess bloating and gas
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea, sometimes accompanied by vomiting
Lactose intolerance can therefore be a thoroughly uncomfortable condition, which naturally encourages sufferers to avoid consuming milk and cheese. In doing so, however, they are also avoiding a potent source of calcium in the diet. As one scientific study put it: “If dairy products are eliminated, other dietary sources of calcium or calcium supplements need to be provided.” But how?
Why Worry About Calcium?
Calcium takes up an estimated 2% of our body weight; in other words we need quite a bit of calcium for optimal health. But what does it actually do?
Calcium and vitamin D are crucial to a healthy skeleton. Calcium deficiencies can result in lower bone density or strength. There is evidence to suggest that thinning of the bones with age - known as osteoporosis - may be slowed by a sufficient intake of calcium. Studies have also shown that lactose intolerant women are statistically more likely to suffer from fractures; likely as a result of weaker bones. Taking steps to maintain healthy calcium levels in the body should therefore be a key consideration for sufferers of the condition.
Calcium seems to have an intriguing impact on our body's ability to lay down fat. Recent studies have found that calcium can help to reduce the chances of weight gain after energy-rich meals by reducing the fat that is stored. What is more, experts believe that when we in a calorie deficit - when fat is normally burned as an energy source - calcium may help to support this process, and as a result can accelerate weight loss.
Calcium seems to play a role in muscle contraction, and so can help to maintain a healthy heart. Many experts believe that calcium regulates contraction of the heart, and experiments have shown that calcium supplements can lower blood pressure. As a result, calcium may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. As should be clear, avoiding calcium deficiencies is therefore an important consideration for anyone avoiding dairy; be that through lactose intolerance or a vegan diet.
How to Get Enough Calcium
While it is commonly believed that lactose intolerant individuals may be at a disadvantage when it comes to calcium consumption, this may not be the full story. One scientific analysis found that bone fractures are actually highest in countries which consume the most dairy. Indeed, experts claim that there are a surprising number of strategies that can help to maintain sufficient calcium levels in the body - even in the absence of milk or cheese.
Get Your Diagnosis Confirmed
Lactose intolerance has been researched surprisingly well over the years. One common finding is that far fewer people are actually lactose intolerance than they might otherwise think. Repeated studies suggest that many people who believe they suffer from an intolerance are frequently dis-diagnosing themselves.
In many cases, the issue causing symptoms of bloating, discomfort and diarrhoea are actually something quite different. Therefore, before you fire your milkman it might be wise to get your diagnosis confirmed by a medical expert.
Consume Dairy With Food
Traditionally, lactose intolerant individuals have tried to avoid dairy entirely. Interestingly there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that many individuals can safely enjoy a calcium-rich glass of milk so long as it is consumed in moderation and with food. It appears that the increased digestion that occurs shortly after a meal helps to avoid the standard side effects.
It may be, therefore, that consuming a glass of milk rather than one of wine with your evening meal can prove to be an effective and safe way to boost your calcium intake.
Consider Natural Yogurts
Yogurt may be made from milk, but it is often much easier on the digestive system. This is down to the millions of microorganisms present in yogurt, which serve to aid the digestive process. In one study, individuals suffering from an intolerance were provided with commercial, unflavoured yogurt. The results suggested that even these individuals were able to absorb high levels of calcium with little or no side effects. As the scientists summarized, “yogurt remains an excellent source of calcium because this fermented product is well tolerated by lactase-deficient subjects”.
Focus on Plant-Based Sources of Calcium
Dairy products may be the most common source of calcium in western diets, but it is far from the only source. A range of different plant-based sources are also available. Excellent sources of calcium in the diet include watercress, beans, oranges and figs. Many nuts such as almonds also contain large volumes.
A varied diet rich in plant matter may therefore help to offset any deficiencies that may otherwise arise from a dairy-free diet.
While consuming a healthy, balanced diet may help to increase your calcium intake, the lower levels present in many plants still have the potential to cause deficiency. As one study claimed “the quantity of vegetables required to reach sufficient calcium intake make an exclusively plant-based diet impractical for most individuals unless fortified foods or supplements are included”.
A range of “fortified foods” are now available, where calcium has been added to them. One popular example are the range of fortified plant-based milk products on offer, such as almond and rice milks. Lactose-intolerant individuals would do well to pay particular attention to such products, which present yet another way to boost calcium intake. Many of them taste great too, which is an added bonus!
Whilst traditionally individuals suffering from lactose intolerance may have been at risk of calcium deficiency, these days it is easier than ever before to keep your bones healthy. Experiment with some of the options outlined above and you'll soon be meeting the NHS-recommended intake of 700mg of calcium per day.