Living With Lactose Intolerance in Italy vs. the United States

Having to work around a dietary restriction in a new country can be challenging, yet some Americans have reported that in the case of lactose intolerance, a move to Italy may be the best cure. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 65 percent of the world’s adult population has some degree of lactose intolerance, yet many Americans find this to be much less of a problem in Europe.

Maggie Kovick is an American student with lactose intolerance currently studying at the American University of Rome who decided to test if she would experience a change in the way her body processes lactose since arriving in Italy. She agreed to answer a series of questions regarding her experience with her eating restriction living abroad and her experiences in Italy versus the United States.

Q: When you first arrived in Italy, what were your concerns regarding your dietary restrictions?

A: So when I first came here I kind of knew I would be eating dairy, just because lactose intolerance isn’t detrimental to your health, it’s just annoying, and so when there is really good food it’s just something you put up with and so coming here I was prepared for that, but I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t actually experiencing the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Q: How did your time here meet and/or challenge your expectations?

A: It’s been really nice. It definitely makes life easier. It does make it harder when I go back to the US. I kind of have to get used to changing my diet again because I was actually dairy-free while living in the United States.

Q: In what way does your reaction to lactose differ in Italy vs. the United States? How did you come to realize this? 

A: So, if you’re lactose intolerant, you know. It’s basically just a lot of cramping and it makes you really bloated and uncomfortable, so it’s obvious when you eat something and you don’t feel that way, because you’re used to it otherwise. 

Q: Have you been back to the United States since you moved here? Did your time in Italy have any impact on the way you ate while in the states? 

A: It’s definitely harder to go back to the states and try to be dairy-free again. The food here is better anyways, so it’s kind of okay, but I’m definitely less strict with it when I’m in the states, even though I still have lactose intolerance there and so it still gets triggered. It’s just a lifestyle change I made here that I can’t really undo. 

Q: Is your response to lactose in the United States the same as it was before?

A: Yes, you notice it immediately. Everything is different. The food is different. 

Q: Have you ever felt that your lactose intolerance has been a limiting factor in your choice of diet during your time in Italy? 

A: Sometimes. I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll have mild symptoms of it. It’s never as bad as it is in the states. So I know for myself it’s better if I don’t eat dairy just for my health, but it’s still so good so I do it.

Q: Have you ever visited another country where your reaction to lactose was similar to that of the United States?

A: Definitely in Europe it’s overall been better than in the US, but I do think that Italy is the place where I’ve experienced it the least, whereas even in the UK, it’s not as clean so you feel a difference. It’s worse than here, but I wouldn’t say that anywhere is as bad as the US. The US, I would say, is the worst.

Q: Have you experienced a difference when consuming certain products vs. others? Have you found any products in Italy that have elicited a similar reaction to those in the United States? 

A: I would say it’s universally different, but obviously when they are fresher, more organic ingredients, those obviously make you feel a lot better than processed things, because when something is processed it’s probably going to make you feel pretty lousy anyway. I had a pizza at the Pizzeria Emma one time, and it was just so nice to have the experience of eating a pizza and not feeling like you ate a pizza. I know they have very fresh ingredients, whereas even at Dar Poeta in Testaccio, I still feel a little bit like I’m eating pizza. I think if they’re fresh and organic then it’s really a very high standard. 

Q: Have you spoken to many other individuals with this dietary restriction? How many of them have shared your experience?

A: So when I was working in the hostel in Naples I would notice this because a lot of guests would come by and point it out. Charlie, my boyfriend, is also lactose intolerant, so we are both kind of aware of it. He’s also heard from other people at AUR who’ve had the same experiences.

Q: Do you have any closing thoughts?

A: I wish the US would follow Italy’s example, because it really makes a difference in the lives of people.

For people like Maggie, moving to Europe gives them the chance to enjoy a wide variety of food without the discomfort lactose-intolerance brings. It is still unclear what causes this change, but it may be linked to the use of bovine growth hormone rBST in the United States.

The evidence for this, however, is far from conclusive. Though the hormone remains banned in a variety of European countries, including Italy, the reason for this seems to be related to rBST’s economic impact. According to ABC News, “Canada and several European countries have affirmed that milk produced from rBST cows is safe for human consumption. These countries don't allow the sale of rBST to local farmers for reasons including economics, social customs and general opposition to technological advances used to promote efficient food production, not human health concerns.” It is also possible that this difference is simply the result of higher-quality ingredients being used throughout the production process.

Whatever the cause, the results have had a positive impact on the lives of many travelers visiting Italy and the EU.

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