Being intolerant to lactose can mean a lifetime of avoiding dairy, and suffering very real and uncomfortable symptoms if you don't. Lactose intolerance is a relatively common condition - around 1 in 5 people have symptoms at some point. So we thought we'd look a bit deeper and find out why this common problem seems to be so prevalent and growing, particularly in some populations.
What is lactose intolerance?
First off, it isn't an allergic reaction. Lactose intolerance happens when the body can't properly digest the sugars in milk (called lactose), and it can cause severe discomfort, bloating and other gastrointestinal problems. Although lactose intolerance isn't life-threatening in the way a severe food allergy might be, it can be debilitating, and can lead to nutritional deficiencies which can affect health.
So why does lactose intolerance occur? There are a number of known causes, from genetics and ethnicity to underlying illness - plus a whole host of other, as yet unidentified reasons. Evolution also seems to play a part, so in some populations lactose intolerance has developed over time.
Where is lactose intolerance most prevalent?
Researchers have known for years that some populations have higher levels of lactose intolerance than others. Interestingly, this seems to be linked to the amount of milk they consume.
This table shows the percentage of people with lactose intolerance across different population groups:
You can see from table that Southeast Asian populations have a massive 98% lactose intolerance - which means that virtually everyone from this part of the world will have some degree of lactose intolerance. In contrast, people of Northern European descent have only around 5% lactose intolerance.
But why is this the case? It seems to be linked to consumption of milk. In places where people don't traditionally eat much dairy (such as Asia), there is no need for the body to be able to digest lactose. This means that over time (and we're talking centuries!) the people living in these areas have lost the ability to make the necessary enzymes, making most of the population lactose intolerant.
Of course, this doesn't present a problem as long as their diet remains lactose-free; however, our modern global society means that populations can and do spread out around the world, making lactose intolerance a bit more of an issue. Dairy is a central part of the traditional Western diet, for instance, and avoiding it in countries like the UK can be a challenge.
The bottom line
It's clear that lactose intolerance is a very real problem for those who have it. Self-diagnosis is very common (nearly 50%, according to a recent survey conducted by Allergy UK) which suggests that many people aren't getting advice about this issue from healthcare professionals.
Cutting dairy out of your diet isn't something that should be done lightly, and replacing important nutrients such as calcium and protein through eating the right non-dairy foods is essential for good health. If you think you might be intolerant to lactose, the best idea is to speak to your GP, who will be able to give you appropriate advice about a healthy, balanced diet.
At ilumi we pride ourselves on being milk, gluten and nut-free…..always. You can be sure that if you're following a lactose-free diet, all of our meals are suitable for you. Whether you're avoiding dairy altogether or just trying to cut down, ilumi provides a solution.