Brankin: The chaos of being lactose intolerant

Taking the pain for ice cream and cheese curds.

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Tara Brankin

“Tara, it is not normal to get sick every time you eat pizza.”

“Tara, please take Lactaid.”

“Tara, maybe you should just stop eating dairy.”

These are the words my friends and family have been saying to me for years. I think part of me has always known that I was lactose intolerant, but for most of my life, I ignored it. Yes, my stomach doubled in size every time I had ice cream, and yes, I had to sprint to the bathroom an hour after eating Culver’s cheese curds. I never took Lactaid, a medication that helps people with lactose intolerance digest dairy products, because I didn’t think it was really that bad. I chose to be in denial and continued to eat dairy products frequently.

In the United States, about 36% of people have some form of lactose malabsorption, meaning they have a reduced ability to digest lactose. I am one of those people and know others who are as well. However, most of the people I know with lactose intolerance — myself included — continue to eat dairy anyway. In many ways, I think people view the consequences of eating dairy as worth it, since foods that contain lactose tend to be incredibly delicious.

What I find really interesting about lactose intolerance is how flippant people are about it. In elementary school, I remember teachers not allowing us to bring treats to school that had peanuts in them and having a peanut-free table in the lunchroom for kids who were allergic to nuts. But there were no such regulations regarding dairy products, at least none that I was aware of.

Clearly, this is because the consequences of lactose intolerance are quite mild compared to a severe peanut allergy. If a person with lactose intolerance eats dairy, they are often met with bloating, stomach cramps and diarrhea — which can definitely be unpleasant (I would know) but not deadly. Those with severe peanut allergies can die if they ingest peanuts and need to carry an EpiPen around in case of accidental ingestion.

Side note, people with peanut allergies are often made fun of on social media, being called weak or attention-seeking. Some even go so far as to argue that people with peanut allergies shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce since they make everyone without peanut allergies sacrifice eating certain foods in order to prevent severe allergic reactions. You will find no such posts about us lactose-intolerant folks.

A question I sometimes get is, “Why do you eat dairy if it causes you so much pain?” I really don’t have a good answer for that besides the fact that dairy products are delicious. Is that immature? Probably. But what’s life without a little pain?

I want to make it very clear that I do not recommend blatantly ignoring your lactose intolerance. Obviously, you can make your own choices regarding what you eat, but there have been many times where I’ve had moments of intense self-reflection, mostly while in the fetal position on my bathroom floor, and I question why I continue to eat foods that hurt me.

Will I stop eating dairy products? Frankly, no. But I am going to do my best to be more responsible about it, even if that means reducing my consumption of dairy products and carrying Lactaid with me wherever I go.