Sunday, October 30, 2005

ATLANTA (AP) — Americans should drink three cups of milk a day, the government says. Kiesha Diggs ignores that advice.

Mrs. Diggs, who is black, is lactose-intolerant, meaning she can’t easily digest dairy products. Three cups of milk would wreak havoc.

“Bloating, gas, diarrhea. The whole thing,” said Mrs. Diggs, 36, of Atlanta.

Her sons, Denzell and Armonni, have the same problem. So do as many as 75 percent of black Americans and 90 percent of Asian Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Government dietary guidelines include advice for people with lactose intolerance that note other calcium-containing foods such as fish, broccoli and fortified orange juice. But critics say information on milk alternatives is sometimes buried.

The debate was raised a notch this past month when a vegetarian advocacy group filed a lawsuit aimed at getting milk producers to label their products with a warning that milk could cause digestive problems in lactose-intolerant people.

Milk industry officials called the lawsuit frivolous and said scaring people away from milk is not good health policy.

Many Americans already aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, so it’s not likely they will increase vegetable intake to replace the calcium they could get from milk, said Kelly Schriver, a registered dietitian with the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association.

People on both sides agree that it’s a public health problem, because many people who cut milk out of their diet don’t replace it with other sources of calcium and other dairy nutrients.

The government should clearly explain to minorities that they can get needed calcium and other nutrients such as vitamin D from vegetables and other sources, said Joyce Guinyard, who works for an organization trying to improve health education in black communities in the Los Angeles area.

“There is no real understanding that there’s a substitute [for milk],” Miss Guinyard said.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest significant amounts of lactose, a sugar in milk. It stems from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, produced by cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks down milk sugar so it can be absorbed into the blood.

Worldwide, most people are unable to produce large amounts of lactase. It’s mainly northern Europeans and a few populations in Africa who developed the genetic mutation that allows them to comfortably consume milk after childhood, experts say.

The prevalence of lactose intolerance probably hasn’t gotten a lot of attention because many policy-makers and reporters are whites and don’t think of it as a common problem, said Dr. Hetal Karsan, a specialist at Atlanta’s Emory University.

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