New research says the condition doesn't have to mean a life without ice cream, cheese, and other indulgences

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
March 25, 2013

Cheese, ice cream, Greek yogurt-so many of women's favorite foods can't be enjoyed by those who are lactose intolerant-or so we've been told. But a group of researchers says those with the condition may be able to have their ice cream cake and eat it too.

The 14-member panel at the Development Conference on Lactose Intolerance and Health concluded that diagnosing lactose intolerance isn't as simple as it sounds: Many people lacking the digestive enzymes necessary to digest dairy tolerate the foods just fine, while some who have problems with dairy produce plenty of enzymes.

Even better, they say that "avoiding dairy products isn't even necessary for lactose-intolerant individuals." Instead, they may be able to eat dairy in moderation and-get this-lactose intolerance may even be able to be cured.

Sounds crazy, but it may be true. "The key to successfully overcoming this is to not just eliminate dairy for a time but to 'heal and seal' the gut before trying it again," says Jill Grunewald, a holistic health coach and expert in treating food intolerances. Thanks to an unhealthy diet, illness, or antibiotic useage, many people suffer from "leaky gut syndrome" where the lining of the intestinal wall has thinned, thereby allowing pathogens and undigested food into the blood stream, Grunewald explains. She offers five steps for helping cure your dairy issues:

1. Identify. To figure out if dairy is the real issue, eliminate it entire for at least 21 days. Be sure to check for the bold "Contains milk" under the allergy warning to weed out sneaky sources that you may not realize have dairy in them. After the elimination period, it's time for elimination provocation. Eat a large serving of whatever type of dairy you like, such as 1 cup milk, 1/2 cup ice cream, or two ounces of cheese, and see if you experience pain, bloating, diarrhea, brain fog, skin problems, fatigue, and/or irritability within 72 hours of eating the food. If you experience any of these symptoms, move on to step 2.

2. Eliminate. This step is as simple as it is hard: Remove dairy-even minute sources like icing on a granola bar-out of your diet for a minimum of six months in order to give your body plenty of time to "seal and heal" the intestinal lining.

3. Substitute. During the elimination period, find healthy substitutes. Grunewald likes coconut, such as coconut milk, coconut oil instead of butter, and coconut yogurt, which are gentle on your sensitive system and offer healthy medium-chain fatty acids. If coconut isn't your thing, almond milk and goat milk are also good substitutes, but stay away from soy, as it can mess with your hormone balance.

4. Heal. To fix the "leaky gut," Grunewald recommends bone broth, probiotics, fish oil, apple cider vinegar, and fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha on a daily basis. While there isn't any strict amount of the foods to take daily, she says that the more you eat, the quicker your gut will mend, as these are all high in prebiotics or probiotics, as well as other compounds that encourage a healthy immune system and intestinal function.

5. Reintroduce. After six months, baby-step your way to eating dairy again. The National Institutes of Health recommends starting with a couple of tablespoons of yogurt because it comes with digestive enzymes built in. You can also try other foods, but always start with one tablespoon and work up to two or three small servings of dairy a week, slowing adding another tablespoon every three days until you're eating a normal serving size. Depending on how severe your reaction was to lactose and how well your gut has healed, you still should eat it in moderation-which frankly is good advice even if you don't have tummy troubles.