College Diet Tips: Coping with Dairy Intolerances

How to deal with lactose intolerance in college.

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Today's culture has a simple message when it comes to milk: Drink it.

Advertisements, doctors and, yes, even grandmas encourage children and adults to consume the dairy beverage in order to build strong bones and a healthy body. And in college, there can be a limited amount of non-dairy food options. But for a large percentage of people, an inability to properly digest lactose keeps them from ingesting products that are made from or with dairy. Lactose intolerance symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Avoid cross-contamination at school by asking a food preparer to use a clean skillet or griddle to prepare your food item.

On the other hand, a dairy allergy can cause a host of other symptoms, including hives, eczema, wheezing, coughing and anaphylaxis. The diagnoses with either can be tough for college students, especially, experts say, because of cross-contamination.

"The most common mistakes are accidental contamination," said Marisa Voorhees, The Food-Sensitive Foodie, and a holistic health coach. "The biggest assumption is that if there aren’t any dairy ingredients in the food product then it is OK. But often times, restaurants and cafeterias will take a dairy-free product and mix it in the same bowl that was just vacated by a dairy-filled ingredient. Thus, the leftover dairy bits get mixed in with the 'dairy-free' version and it’s no longer dairy-free."

College student Madeline-Camille — also known as "Chef Froggie" — said cross-contamination was the primary issue for her when she was dealing with finding food options in a college environment.

"The school I was at for my freshman year was awesome," said Madeline-Camille, who is the author of the blog Gluten Free Froggie in the Kitchen, where she discusses her multiple food allergies and celiac disease. "But the cafeteria, I hated. Most of the staff were students working part-time. Some of them 'got it' because they also happened to be some of my really good friends, so I was able to sit down with them at other times of the day to explain things to — some of them just didn't get it."

"I'd be in the line and ask, 'What does not have any milk?' and they would go back and ask, and there was frequently a breakdown in communication. I quickly learned I had to say 'What doesn't have any dairy, milk, cheese, butter, sour cream, etc?' and even then still mistakes were made."

In addition to the obvious offenders, like milk, cheese, yogurt and butter, Voorhees said dairy likes to hide in a number of food items, including:

  • Eggs: Often times, scrambled, skilleted, baked, and fried eggs are made in butter, or a butter/oil mixture. If you order eggs, make sure to request they are made in oil only.
  • Protein drinks and energy bars.
* Sourdough bread: Lactic acid makes it sour.
  • Fermented foods and beverages, such as sauerkraut, pickles, olives, kimchi, cider, beer, wine and cocoa. (Read labels and look for lactic acid or lactobacillus).
  • Allergy medication: A number of them have lactose as a base in the pill.
  • Probiotics: A number of them use bacterias made from dairy including L. casei and L. brevis. Dairy also goes by a number of other names, including casein, lactate, whey, hydrolysates and villi.

Voorhees said lactic acid can also hide in common household products, like soap-scum remover and other cleaning products. Hair and beauty items are also prone to containing milk or lactic acid because both ingredients are known as natural moisturizers. As for finding safe food options in school cafeterias and restaurants, Voorhees suggests sticking to whole ingredient foods, like chopped veggies, fresh meats, and whole pieces of fruits.

"This way your meal can be made with a minimal number of processed ingredients and it will be easier to avoid your food allergen," Voorhees said. "If the eatery uses a lot of prepackaged and/or frozen foods, more than likely the food has already been in contact with your food allergen."

Voorhees also said eateries with more than one cooking surface or griddle are more likely to be able to make a meal in a clean, uncontaminated space.

"Seek out eateries that offer lists of ingredients with their meals," Voorhees said. "If ingredients are not listed, do not be afraid to ask for them. If an eatery cannot provide you with a list of ingredients, then choose a different meal so that you avoid accidental contamination because there was milk hiding in that pasta sauce."

Steer clear of school cafeteria salad bars to avoid risk of cross-contamination: "The big container of cottage cheese is next to the tofu cubes and — whoops — someone just scooped their cottage cheese with your tofu spoon and then put it back in the tofu," Voorhees said.

If a student shares an apartment or kitchen space with roommates, then Voorhees advises them to keep utensils and cookware separate to avoid risk of cross-contamination.

And just because you have to be dairy-free doesn't mean you can't enjoy dairy alternatives. Munch on cereal with soy or almond milk, toss fresh berries in coconut milk yogurt and eat dairy-free frozen desserts straight from the carton. Hey, that's what college is for, right?

Quick Tips

  • Avoid cross-contamination at school by asking a food preparer to use a clean skillet or griddle to prepare your food item.
  • Read all labels to check for the various names that might indicate dairy is present in a packaged or prepared food, or a body care item.
  • Consider dairy alternatives, like almond chocolate milk, soy yogurt and dairy-free frozen desserts.

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