Can no dairy products cause lactose intolerance?

We are raising our son vegan (no animal products) . I was told that by not giving him any dairy we will be causing him to be lactose intolerant. I wouldn't mind this, but I want him to be able to make his own choice about being vegan when he is old enough to do so. I don't want to force him into it by making it hard for him to digest dairy. Is this possible? If so, how common? And is there something he can do if he does become lactose intolerant?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Mary,

Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in lactase, an enzyme that is normally produced by the small intestine. Lactase is the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose, the milk sugar found in all dairy products. Lactase breaks lactose down into glucose and galactose, two simple sugars that can be absorbed and used by the body. Lactose intolerance is caused primarily by a genetic abnormality but low levels of lactase can also be caused by an underlying disease or medical condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract. It is not caused by the "use it or lose it" phenomenon.

Most kids have the ability to digest lactose, but many go on to lose this enzyme as they get older. If your son chooses to eat dairy products and discovers he is lactose intolerant, it would be caused not by the fact that he didn't eat dairy as a child, but rather by a genetic propensity to lose the enzyme.

Most likely, if your son begins to eat dairy products when he is older, he will have no problems. However, if he does there are a couple of things he can do. One, is to be sure to drink milk or eat dairy products in small amounts and with other foods. This will prevent overloading his guts ability to deal with the lactose. A second thing he can do is to choose to eat dairy in the form of fermented products such as yogurt, cultured buttermilk, or sweet acidophilus milk since the culturing bacteria has broken down some of the lactose already. Thirdly, he can choose a solid form of lactase supplementation that is chewed or swallowed at mealtime. For additional help you can contact: LactAid, 1-800-522-8243.

Thanks for writing.

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