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What if it isn’t Lactose or Gluten?

Gluten free? Dairy free? Maybe not. What your tummy is really trying to tell you.

Gluten free and dairy free diets are on many people’s minds these days as they tackle some very human, somewhat awkward, symptoms that could be related to lactose intolerance or celiac disease. Gas. Bloating. Diarrhea. Tummy pain. These symptoms are perhaps more common than you think, and actually related to boatloads of causes.

What if it isn’t what you think?

The thing is, other medical conditions as well as ingredients/things we find in foods beyond gluten or lactose can cause similar side effects. Added fiber ingredients can do this. Sugar alcohols can do this. We must figure out what it really is to get the relief we are looking for.

Most of us have done it. The search for what it is that might be ailing you. It starts innocently enough, finding something that describes your (or a loved one’s) symptoms. You read. View the pictures. Poof. You’ve “diagnosed” the problem and initiated “treatment”.

You are not alone. This doesn’t mean you should keep doing it.

Google search engines
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

“Cyberchondria, otherwise known as compucondria, is the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online.”


We have access to “all” the information that exists about things that can happen to us. Bodies are weird. Sometimes they are acutely weird. Sometimes they aren’t weird at all, they are just doing what bodies do.

So…if you read about something, decide you have it, then treat it, some of you might feel a little better.

About 1/3 of people who take a placebo believing it is medicine experience a decrease in symptoms.

Better Health Channel, Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia

What if you’re wrong? Your temporary relief (perceived or real) could lead to restricting food choices and the unique package of nutrients food delivers to us. It could also alter your activity, or more seriously, prolong an actual diagnosis of something that could have long term implications on your health and quality of life.

Let’s have a look at lactose intolerance.

Lactose is the naturally occurring sugar in milk and milk products.

Lactase is the enzyme that helps break lactose down. (An enzyme is basically a substance that makes stuff happen.)

Did you know there are different types of lactose intolerance? Yep. So right there, you have your first “which one is it” question that a search engine might not get right for you personally.

Primary lactose intolerance is pretty much what it sounds like. No intestinal disease/other diagnosis caused it.

Secondary lactose intolerance is caused by something else.

Congenital lactose intolerance is a complete absence of lactase.

There are an estimated 30-50 million Americans who have lactose intolerance. It’s not an allergy. It’s a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. Lactose intolerant people will find relief from limiting or avoiding lactose. Get diagnosed so you can do the most helpful thing for YOU. Otherwise it’s a guessing game, and those aren’t always very fun or effective.

Once you are diagnosed by a doctor, learn which foods have how much lactose. Some dairy products have little or no lactose, so lactose intolerant people can often comfortably enjoy some of these foods. This is a very personal journey with no one right answer, so get your lactose groove on and determine what works for you.

Now let’s take a peek at celiac disease, the medical reason a person absolutely has to avoid gluten. About 1 in 133 people have it, but according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, only 1 in 4,700 people are actually diagnosed with it, and it can take 11 years for diagnosis. If a person goes undiagnosed (and doesn’t follow treatment), it can lead to greater risk for osteoporosis, anemia, infertility, type 1 diabetes, and more.

Symptoms include diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, fatigue, anxiety – the list is long.

“A gluten-free diet means avoiding all foods that contain wheat, rye, and barley. In addition, unprocessed meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables do not contain gluten, unless
they are marinated with or cooked with gluten-containing ingredients.”

from “Essentials of Celiac Disease and the Gluten-Free Diet”

The FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule came about in 2014 and is super helpful to people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. It’s interesting to consider the timing of this presence on food packaging and the awareness of gluten in the general population.

Take the time to get diagnosed. Talk with a doctor (and dietitian, pharmacist, etc) who listens to you and fits your style of health management. Meaning, there are lots of personalities in different professions. Find the healthcare team you click with best.

The overall bottom line? If your body is trying to tell you something, listen. Talk with your doctor and don’t just rely on a search engine alone. Get what you personally need, avoiding only what you need to and enjoying everything you can. We humans are a tricky bunch that like to forget what it really takes to keep ourselves feeling great as we go about our busy, overscheduled lives. It’s time to remember and act on this. Food, rest, and activity are the foundation. The details are where the best outcomes lie, so use all the tools and professionals available to get your full story. You deserve it.

health food balance

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.