Do You Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Dairy?

Surveys indicate that more than one-third of African Americans are lactose intolerant. Nutritionist Dr. Rovenia Brock talks to Farai Chideya about how to manage your diet if you have an intolerance or allergy to dairy products. Brock is the author of Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Do you have a love-hate relationship with dairy? Well, you're not alone. Between 30 and 50 million Americans have trouble digesting dairy, and between half and three quarters of all African-Americans have symptoms of lactose intolerance. That is significantly higher than for white Americans.

Still, the National Medical Association, the largest group of black doctors in the U.S., says that African-Americans actually need to eat more dairy to stay healthy and fight certain diseases. So how can something good for you feel so bad, and is there anything that you can do about it?

For more, we turn to NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock aka Dr. Ro.

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Author, "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy"): Low-fat dairy products contain minerals that your body needs for normal body maintenance, and in some cases, minerals like calcium and potassium which fight disease. And low-fat dairy products are also a very good source of protein. So I think in the light circumstances, overall, it's a good food.

CHIDEYA: So when you're talking low-fat dairy products, we are clearly not talking, you know, whipped cream or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: …things like that. What are you talking about?

Dr. BROCK: I'm talking about skim milk or fat-free yogurt, fat-free or low-fat cheeses. However, I recognized that there is a problem with some segments of the population, particularly for African-Americans and to a lesser extent Latinos and Asian Americans, to consume dairy products because of a condition called lactose intolerance.

CHIDEYA: Now, what exactly is lactose intolerance? Is it like an allergy or…?

Dr. BROCK: No. You know, Farai, there's a difference between a milk or dairy allergy and lactose intolerance. First, lactose intolerance is a condition whereby your body lacks sufficient lactase, which is an enzyme necessary to break down or digest the milk sugar, or the sugar found in milk called lactose, so that it's available to the body for absorption. So if your body doesn't have enough lactase, you can't break down lactose. And the results could be painful and very discomforting like gas, bloating, painful cramps and even diarrhea.

CHIDEYA: You know, it brings up that commercial product, Lactaid, which is milk, I guess, with the enzymes in it. If you are lactose intolerant, are there ways around it, or there are supplements you can take that give you what you don't have or do you pretty much have to avoid it?

Dr. BROCK: Well, you've just given an excellent example, and that is the use of Lactaid. And it's a milk with the enzyme, where the milk sugar has already been predigested for you. In addition to that, as a way of getting the calcium that you may be missing in dairy if it's unbearable for you to consume dairy, there's calcium fortified orange juice. Other options are soy products like tofu and soymilk, which do contain calcium. One cup of soymilk contains about 80 milligrams of calcium, and if it's fortified, 250 to 300 milligrams. So there are work-arounds.

CHIDEYA: There is someone who will remain nameless at this office who says that she hasn't eaten pizza in years because she's lactose intolerant, and she really misses that dairy, I think. And so it sounds like her body changed over time. Is that possible?

Dr. BROCK: It is possible. You know, when you drink milk frequently as a child, you have, interestingly enough, enough of lactase in your body. And so when you stop the consumption of dairy foods, you can lose your affinity for lactase and you can actually, you know, you start to lose it, and so now your body doesn't have the ability to break down the milk sugar found in dairy products. But it's possible for some people to get it back by consuming more dairy.

CHIDEYA: Now, there's been different studies about dairy in African-Americans. There was one that came out in the February 2007 journal of the American Dietetic Association talking about how African-Americans consume fewer servings of dairy - milk, cheese and yogurt. And then, Dr. Greg Miller of the National Dairy Council, which funded the study, said because of the biological make up of African-Americans, a greater number of them are lactose intolerant. But it's not a real intolerance; it's a learned food aversion. Now, is that accurate?

Dr. BROCK: Well, I don't know what he's trying to say. I can tell you I disagree with his statement simply because if you feel griping, painful cramping and experience diarrhea and some of the other symptoms that go along with being lactose intolerant, I don't think anyone can tell you it's perceived. Having said that, there is a small segment of the African-American population that believes that milk is the stuff that just makes black people big fat cows, and this is just a ridiculous premise.

And another reason why we need to be on top of this is because, you know, African-Americans - we've said many times on this show - suffer disproportionately from hypertension. And calcium and potassium are the minerals that go a long way to protect you against hypertension in the presence of a low-fat, high fiber diet. And so we are the least able to cut off our noses to spite our faces by cutting out a whole food group in the interest of something that really just has no scientific basis.

CHIDEYA: One of my baby friends, as I like to call them, one of my little under five friends, takes rice milk on her cereal instead of cow's milk. Do you think that soy and rice and almond milk are good alternatives, first of all, for adults, whether they're lactose intolerant or not? And what about kid's special needs?

Dr. RO: Well, you know, for your baby friend and for kids, rice, soy, almond milk are good alternatives. And for adults as well. As I mentioned, in the case of soy, the calcium contained therein is significant, and so you certainly are not losing out there. You might find that the expense of a rice or almond milk is far greater than that of cow's milk. But, you know, how much are you willing to sacrifice your own good health?

CHIDEYA: Do they have the calcium that dairy has?

Dr. BROCK: They do not. And that's the reason I use the example of soymilk, because it does contain a good, you know, respectable amount of calcium. In the case of rice and almond, they do not. And it's very difficult to find a fortified rice or almond milk with calcium and some of the other minerals.

CHIDEYA: Let's move ahead. Tells us about your Million Miles and More challenge.

Dr. BROCK: Well, Farai, you know, I am so excited about this because we've been talking about the whole business of living healthy and what the process is like, and we've certainly done many reports on getting your physical activity picture in motion and underway through your own example, as we watched you all last year. Now, my way of getting - hopefully inspiring African-American women across the nation to embrace the concept of living a more active, balanced lifestyle through physical activity is the Million Miles and More challenge. And what that means is that I'm traveling the country to get women to come out and join me in a walk and to get them to sign up and to pledge walking a million collective miles over the course of the next year.

And what I hope to do is to follow those women who make their pledges and who joined me in this challenge to see, you know, how we can report their outcomes, how we can report their progress, their pitfalls, and to see how I can be of a greater resource to them.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Ro, thanks so much.

Dr. BROCK: Always a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Rovenia Brock is a regular contributor to NEWS & NOTES and author of "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy." And she joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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