Even if you’ve never had a problem digesting dairy products, you might develop lactose intolerance as you get older. That’s because your body produces less lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose in the foods you eat. Seniors may also experience lactose intolerance due to certain illnesses or medications.Rather than suffer the discomfort, most people simply avoid dairy products. Unfortunately, that can rob your body of critical nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium, and magnesium. You need these to maintain strong bones and muscles, and calcium also helps prevent high blood pressure and stroke. Interestingly, lactose intolerance is most common among African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American populations.
Lactose sensitivity varies from one senior to the next. Some folks can consume small amounts of milk or cheese, for example, without digestive discomfort. For others, any amount of dairy causes problems. This is why the culinary team at senior living communities should focus on personalized menu planning for each resident. You can do that at home, too.
Low-Lactose versus Dairy-Free
Especially in assisted living, residents often describe themselves as lactose and/or gluten intolerant. We try to learn more, asking about which specific foods they are sensitive to and how they affect them.
Then, we review recipes to see what items they might want to avoid. As always, choices are essential; someone may have food sensitivities, but they also have personal preferences when it comes to alternatives. The goal is to provide a well-balanced diet with meals that are nutritious, tasty, and tempting so that each individual can remain not only healthy but also satisfied.
The dining experience is a big part of the value of a senior living community. Usually, meals are offered restaurant style in the dining room. Residents order off a menu and are served plated meals, turning mealtime into a social occasion where residents can come together and chat. This is especially important for skilled nursing residents, as it can indirectly encourage better eating as well as boost emotional well-being.
Group dining also benefits team members. They see residents every day, sometimes three times a day, so they are in a position to notice potential health issues or other changes and then mention them to the nursing team.
That said, if you’re still living on your own (or caring for an elderly loved one living alone), there are simple ways to get the nutrients you need without triggering the discomfort caused by lactose intolerance.
Consider Italian ice instead of ice cream, or fresh or canned fruit as an alternative dessert.
Reduce portion size
For example, if one cup of milk (about 12 grams of lactose) is too much for you, put less on your oatmeal. Or use milk only in your coffee if that’s the way you like it.
Blend dairy with foods that are easier to digest
Non-lactose foods can help slow your digestive process, making it easier for your body to properly absorb the lactose. This is why it’s important to think about your overall food consumption—the whole plate, what you eat over a day or a week—rather than item by item.
Choose hard cheeses
The aging process changes the lactose in cheddar, Parmesan, and Romano into lactic acid. Or try feta or manchego. They’re made of sheep’s milk (read the label to be sure), which can be easier to digest than cow’s or goat’s milk.
Look for yogurt with active cultures
But beware added ingredients such as whey or milk solids.
Drink plant-based milk
Many alternatives such as almond, soy, oat, or rice milk contain important calcium. And there’s a nice side benefit: these milks can also help reduce cholesterol. Or try lactose-free milk and ice cream, made from “real” milk that has already been treated with lactase to promote easier digestion.
Eat more foods that offer nutrients found in dairy
Broccoli, leafy green veggies, almonds, Brazil nuts, dried beans, canned sardines, and salmon are all good sources of calcium. Eggs, salmon, sardines, swordfish, and liver contain vitamin D.
Look for fortified packaged foods
But consider your overall nutrition needs. Fortified orange juice, for example, may be too sugary for people with diabetes.
Finally, note that it’s not only dairy products themselves that you need to consider. Milk is a common ingredient in everything from baked goods and protein shakes to packaged pancake mixes and mashed potatoes (not to mention milk chocolate). Even some “non dairy” creamers actually contain lactose or milk.
By focusing on what you can eat and the modifications or trade-offs that work for you, seniors can avoid the side effects of lactose intolerance without sacrificing good nutrition or foods you love to eat.