We’ve advanced a lot in the past 20 years but for some reason, scientists haven’t been able to figure out why so many of us can’t do one simple think: digest dairy. In fact, according to a USA Today report, about 60% of people in the world cannot digest lactose—the main sugar found in milk—after infancy.
Lactose intolerance, the inability to digest lactose, is quite common—so common, that scientists say that actually being able to digest milk after childhood is rare, and not the other way around.
The fact that we do, despite the fact that no other mammal drinks milk after infancy, is the reason why scientists have coined the term “lactose persistence,” to denote that less than half of the world’s population continue, oddly enough, drink milk after infancy. Why? A study from Cornell University postulated that humans that can digest dairy today actually come from areas where dairy herds were raised nearby; however, if you originally lived in colder, more extreme climates, then historically dairy wouldn’t be part of your diet, and this was passed down for generations.
So why do we continue drinking milk? I won’t get into the roots of the milk lobby and their effect on milk consumption, but know it’s a very real and important factor (just try getting the “Get Milk” campaign out of your head). There are, of course, many healthy reasons to drink milk, such as to get enough calcium and vitamins, especially vitamin D, which many dairy products are fortified with.
But the drinking milk hype might be overrated, especially considering milk is heavily processed, often comes from animals that are pumped full of antibiotics, and the fact that milk pasteurization actually deactivates many of the healthy nutrients found in milk.
Of course, for many people, like my husband, for example, drinking milk or having dairy foods, is not even an option. Like the majority of the world’s population, he’s lactose intolerant, although it took us awhile to figure it out. This is actually quite common as the symptoms of lactose intolerance can be vague and you may attribute them to something other than the milk or yogurt you just consumed. Continuing to consume lactose, when your body lacks the necessary enzymes to break it down, can be harmful and destructive to your digestive system.
Here are a few tell-tale signs you’re lactose intolerant. If you experience any of these after drinking milk or eating dairy products, then you may be lactose intolerant:
- Stomach aches and cramps
- Throwing up
If you think you may be lactose intolerant, there are a few ways to verify. You can try eliminating dairy from your diet and slowly reintroducing it. If you notice the same symptoms, chances are you’re lactose intolerant. If you still want to eat dairy, then trying taking a lactaid pill before and see if that helps.
If you’re cutting milk and dairy from your diet, there are still other great sources of calcium, like these five foods that contain more calcium than milk!
I know you may love a glass of milk in the morning—or a steaming cup of hot chocolate, like my husband—but it’s definitely not worth hurting your health over it.
“Lactose intolerance linked to ancestral environment,” ScienceDaily web site, June 2, 2005; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050602012109.htm
“Lactose intolerance,” The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center; http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/digestive_disorders/lactose_intolerance/Pages/index.aspx
Weise, E., “Sixty percent of adults can’t digest milk,” USA Today web site, September 15, 2009; http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/2009-08-30-lactose-intolerance_N.htm