Q: I am an athlete with lactose intolerance. However, I have discovered that when I drink chocolate milk I don’t have the unpleasant digestive symptoms I normally experience when I drink unflavored milk. Why is that?

A: As an athlete with lactose intolerance, you do not have the ability to digest the sugar (known as lactose) found in many dairy products. Having lactose intolerance means you don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to absorb lactose. When you eat dairy, bacteria in the digestive tract react to the lactose, triggering symptoms such as stomach pain and bloating.

In an article published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition*, researchers found that chocolate milk was better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance than unflavored milk. The scientists theorized that cocoa might:

  • Stimulate lactase activity
  • Reduce the number of gas-producing bacteria in the digestive tract
  • slow gastric emptying

Athletes depend on healthy bones to keep them strong and calcium is critical for bone health. Dairy is crucial to keep in your diet not just it delivers calcium; milk also contains the right nutrients to help an athlete recover from a hard workout. Milk naturally has electrolytes that help restore fluid balance. Milk may also help prevent further exercise-induced muscle damage and enhance muscle gains in resistance athletes. If you are going the distance in any sport, whether that’s running, cycling or something else, chocolate milk contains an optimal carbohydrate-to-protein ratio that helps refuel the body’s reserves.

Here are other useful tips to help you with lactose intolerance:

  1. Drink lactose-free milk products. Reduce your risk of having a reaction by replacing “regular” milk with a lactose-free dairy product. Lactose-reduced milk still has all of nutrients found in milk, including protein, calcium, potassium and vitamin D.
  2. Research the lactose contentand the effect ofyour favorite dairy foods. Reaction to lactose can differ from person to person. One person may have severe symptoms after drinking a small amount of milk while another person can comfortably drink milk in the presence of food. Some people can easily eat yogurt and hard cheeses such as cheddar and Swiss, while other milk products cause them to have symptoms. Find out where you fall in the spectrum, and try to incorporate dairy in your diet accordingly.
  3. Don’t confuse lactose intolerance with a milk allergy. A true milk allergy involves the immune system, while lactose intolerance means you don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase to break down the milk. Symptoms of a milk allergy include hives, wheezing, vomiting, runny nose, itchy rash, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and watery eyes. The inability to break down the lactose leads to an upset stomach. These two issues are often confused, and you should consult your doctor if you think you may have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance.

* European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2003) 57, 701 – 705. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601600