Leading expert tackles science on digestive problems

Professor of Nutrition, Dennis Savaiano, PhD says patients who report having lactose intolerance do not need to cut out dairy foods from their diet. Having studied lactose digestion for more than 30 years, Professor Savaiano is in Australia this week to translate the science around lactose intolerance.
An increasing number of Australians report experiencing digestive problems such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. While these may be due to a number of factors including stress, medication, inadequate exercise and food intolerances, people often limit or exclude dairy foods in a quest for symptom relief without consulting a health professional.

Currently, 9 out of 10 Australians don’t meet the recommended daily intake from the milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives food group, and more than 50 per cent are not getting enough calcium in their diets. With this in mind, people are potentially missing out on the important nutrients and health benefits of dairy foods.
Professor Savaiano’s research has influenced dietary recommendations relating to lactose around the world, including the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines. His more recent research suggests that people who have cut out dairy foods from their diet due to digestive problems can try a 21-day milk-drinking intervention. This involves starting with half a cup of milk with a meal twice a day in week one, stepping this up to two-thirds of a cup in week two and then one cup during week three.

Professor Savaiano says “People who complete the 21-day milk-drinking intervention see an improvement in symptoms and go on to enjoy milk and other dairy foods such as cheese and yoghurt as part of their everyday meals and snacks.”

For those limiting their intake of dairy foods due to digestive problems, Professor Savaiano urges health professionals to help their patients find ways to ‘do dairy differently’. It may be to spread their intake of dairy over the day, by having dairy foods with meals or having smaller amounts of dairy at a time to gradually build up their tolerance.

Dr John D’Arcy, General Practitioner and The Gut Foundation board member, reminds health professionals that even people diagnosed with lactose intolerance can still enjoy the health benefits of the dairy foods. The Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest that up to 250ml of milk may be well tolerated if broken up throughout the day and consumed with other foods. Hard cheeses contain virtually no lactose and are generally well tolerated by those diagnosed with lactose intolerance. Yoghurt contains good bacteria, which helps to digest lactose and lactose-free milks are available and contain similar nutrients to regular milk.

Health professionals can play a key role in reminding their patients with digestive problems, including lactose intolerance to rethink cutting out or limiting dairy foods from their diet as they may be unnecessarily missing out on important nutrients, as well as the health benefits associated with dairy foods, including a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, some cancers and type 2 diabetes.

Dairy Australia has facilitated the development of the Foods That Do Good communication program to provide health professionals with a central source of nutrition information. The website www.foodsthatdogood.com.au features evidence-based information about lactose intolerance and tips for health professionals.