What Ethnic or Racial Groups Tend to Have More Incidence of Lactose Intolerance?

People of West African descent have some of the highest rates of lactose intolerance.
Image Credit: Eva-Katalin/E+/GettyImages

Got milk? Dunking Oreos into a tall glass of this cold, creamy beverage may seem like a popular pastime, but the truth is, the lactose in milk doesn't agree with everybody. In fact, lactose intolerance gets more common with age, and there's a higher risk for certain groups of people.

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Read on to learn more about this digestive concern, including the ways race and ethnicity can play a role, the signs that may appear if you have it and easy ways to treat this health condition.

What Is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is the inability to comfortably consume milk products containing the sugar lactose. Having too little of a particular intestinal enzyme, called lactase, can lead to lactose intolerance, per the Mayo Clinic.

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Lactose intolerance as an adult is also known as lactose malabsorption or acquired lactase deficiency, per the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), and it's considered a harmless condition. But the symptoms that accompany it can be unpleasant, including bloating, abdominal cramping and pain, excess gas and diarrhea.

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Lactose Intolerance by Race

It's estimated that 65 percent of people have a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). But lactose intolerance has a genetic component, as it's related to LCT or the lactase gene. And lactose intolerance by ethnicity is another aspect of this health issue, as people of the following descents are more prone to developing it, per the NLM:

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  • East Asian (between 70 to 100 percent of adults are affected)
  • West African
  • Arab
  • Jewish
  • Greek
  • Italian

People of Northern European descent have some of the lowest levels of lactose intolerance — only about 5 percent have the condition.

Still, a broad, December 2018 review in ​Nutrients​ found that a diagnosis of lactose intolerance in certain groups is more nuanced than previously believed. This report noted that people assigned female at birth, the elderly and some racial groups aren't simply more susceptible to lactose intolerance. Instead, the authors say the main reason symptoms develop is related to the dose of lactose consumed, each person's body size and other genetic factors.

Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance

If drinking milk or eating cheese or yogurt that's made from cow's milk bothers your stomach, you can expect symptoms of lactose intolerance to set in somewhere between 30 minutes to two hours later.

The common signs of discomfort include the following, per the ACG:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating and gas
  • Abdominal cramping and pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting, in rare cases

Check with your doctor so you can describe your symptoms and consider keeping a food log. This way, you can track what you're eating and discover which items and in which amounts are causing the problem.

How to Treat Lactose Intolerance

Learning to live with lactose intolerance might require a bit of sleuthing to determine how much lactose you can eat without feeling ill, per the Mayo Clinic. Fortunately, it's rare to have such a bad case of lactose intolerance that you're forced to avoid all dairy as well as foods and drugs that contain lactose.

Here are a few ways to manage lactose intolerance and minimize its symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Choose a low-fat milk over the full-fat version, or try lactose-free milk
  • Drink or eat smaller servings of dairy
  • Eat or drink dairy with meals, to slow the digestive process
  • Opt for hard cheeses (Swiss, cheddar) that contain less lactose
  • Take over-the-counter drops or tablets that contain lactase

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