Many people mistakenly believe they have trouble digesting lactose, leading them to unnecessarily cut milk and other dairy products from their diets, and, therefore, eliminating a major source of calcium.
Lactose is the main sugar in milk and other dairy foods. Some people are lactose maldigesters -- those who have true problems breaking down lactose. However, few people are truly incapable of handling lactose.
"There have been numerous news reports that suggest we don't need milk and other dairy products after our bones and teeth have formed," says Alvin Atlas, D.D.S., a general dentist who practices in Evanston. "Also, many nutrition students have been taught for years that certain groups of people lack an enzyme in their digestive tracts to handle milk's lactose. For example, some Asians, Africans and Middle Eastern peoples, including Jews, have been placed in this category, and as a result, have lower milk consumption. However, there is little science to prove they are lactose intolerant."
Other people simply diagnose themselves as lactose intolerant because they have stomach aches or other related symptoms. "The odd thing is that these people tend to be very selective," says Dr. Atlas. "For example, they won't drink milk but love yogurt. They avoid cheese but eat pizza with cheese on it. I think many use it as an excuse to lose weight, but they are losing the calcium."
Nine out of 10 women and almost two-thirds of men do not get the calcium amounts recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, which increased recommended intakes last year. Low calcium intake can increase risk of osteoporosis (thinning of bones) and high blood pressure, two serious chronic diseases.
Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that most people who have trouble digesting lactose can have as much as two cups of milk a day if it is consumed with meals. In fact, eating and drinking products that contain lactose may improve a person's digestive abilities.
Dr. Atlas makes the following points for people who believe they may have lactose intolerance problems:
- Consider special milk products such as acidophilus milk or other pharmaceutical products to take with dairy products.
- Chocolate milk may be handled better than white milk by some.
- Start small -- Increase milk portions over a period of time, a strategy similar to eating more beans in order to help eliminate the gas problems they cause. Consume milk with meals to aid in digestion.
- Most cheeses have very low levels of lactose and are easier to digest.
- Yogurt and ice cream are more easily tolerated by lactose-avoiders. Ice cream simply has less lactose, and the cultures in yogurt are helpful in digestion of lactose.
"If you believe you are lactose intolerant, don't simply make a self-diagnosis," says Dr. Atlas. "Explain your suspicions to your dentist who can then refer you to a physician or a nutritionist. You can't simply stop consuming products that contain lactose because you will end up not getting the calcium you need."
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