Bona Fide Disputes

Biologically Speaking We Should All Be Lactose Intolerant

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[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] was six or seven years old when I learned I was lactose intolerant –  which apparently is right on schedule.  Most children stop producing the gene that digests lactose – the sugar in milk –  at this age because they are no longer breast feeding (although, now I’m wondering why it doesn’t happen sooner…weird).

Think about it: What mammal continues to drink milk after adolescence?  Humans stand alone my friend.   My body was preparing for survival – breaking free from the nipple as it were.  Like clockwork I began suffering from incredibly painful stomach cramps and aches – particularly late at night.  So painful in fact that I would curl up in the fetal position on my parent’s bed, my dad pacing the floor while on the phone with the doctor.  We could not figure out what was wrong with me.

As with most illnesses we had to eliminate everything else before finding the correct diagnosis.  *shakes head* One night my dad asked me to stand up on my tippy-toes and then fall back on my heels.  “Do you feel any sharp pain in your abdomen?” he asked me.  I didn’t.  That night we ruled out appendicitis.


I thought I was an abnormal six-year-old

I imagine (since I don’t remember, probably because I blocked out this part of my childhood) I was understandably devastated when we learned that I was lactose intolerant.  Who in their right mind is going to tell a six-year-old they can’t eat ice cream anymore?!  The nerve.  I do, however, remember the beautiful day when my mom told me a friend of hers had a son who was also lactose intolerant. This was great news!

For one, I wasn’t alone anymore.  Two, he had a way around it: lactase enzymes.  Lactase is the enzyme produced in our intestines that allows us to digest lactose, the sugar in milk.  Upon swallowing the little white chalky pills he could drink milk, eat ice cream and cheese. Enzymes are amazing.

My world returned to normal, because let’s be clear here – I’m the normal one because I can’t digest lactose.

And this post is the last time I will ever use the word normal in a positive sense.  Such a stupid word.

Which is why…


People who CAN digest lactose are the weird ones

I will never forget the look a friend of mine gave me when I told him that I am lactose intolerant.  He blurted out, dumbstruck and wide-eyed, “What! You can’t drink milk?!”  Well, the joke’s on him.  Most people are lactose intolerant and probably don’t even know it.  Because guess what?  Biologically  humans are not designed to digest lactose.

Since I was so young I thought something was wrong with me and that it was a rare condition.  I wouldn’t tell people, embarrassed by it all.  Turns out I’m not so alone!  Sixty-percent of adults cannot digest lactose, milk’s main sugar.  Yes, you read that right –  60%.  In fact, scientists say that calling it a disease is misleading because the 35% or so of people who are lactose persistent (they can digest it) have evolved thanks to a genetic mutation.

Yup.  Mutation people!  Take pride in the fact that you are both mutated and also quite weird. And unnatural.  Okay, I’m done.

Just want to make it crystal clear that digesting lactose is not normal. Also – I know people who are but don’t believe me when I tell them they are.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s actually normal.  NORMAL!


Unless you’re of Northern European descent, you’re probably lactose intolerant

It makes sense that my friend of Norwegian descent was shocked by my apparently horrifying intolerance: he’s totally white.  Okay, let me break that down: Norwegian, Scottish, German, Irish…the list goes one.  And he lives in one of the whitest states in America: Washington.  Over 71% of Washington’s population is non-Hispanic White.  Whereas I grew up in one of the most ethnically saturated states, California, where 39% of California is non-Hispanic White.  Any-hoo…

Why does this matter?  Two reasons. One, 90% of Northern European people can digest lactose, while for everyone else the numbers drop drastically, beginning with 50% of Mediterranean, 25% of African and Caribbean, 5% of Asians and 0% of Native Americans.  So, to be fair, how could my blue-eyed-at-one-point-blonde-haired-friend know that this was so common when he is surrounded and grew up with people who can digest it?  I’ll give him that much.  The more you know, right?

Here’s a spoonful of history for ya: About 11,000 years ago farms began sprouting like crazy and agriculture, particularly dairy farming, took the middle east by storm.  Farmers learned to reduce the lactose amounts in milk when they produced foods like yogurt. Then around 7,000 years ago (pretty recent if you ask me), a genetic mutation that allowed Europeans – specifically Northern Europeans – to break down the lactose sugar spread across the region. Which brings us to today.  If you want to get into the nitty-gritty history and science behind this – take a gander at this European Journal of Human Genetics.


So why Got Milk? when most of us cannot digest it?

Builds strong bones and teeth.  It does a body good. Got Milk?  Perhaps the greatest advertising campaign ever, led by the California Milk Processor Board, took a generic, common product and made it a super-star.  As someone who is extremely passionate about branding, taglines and creative advertising, I love the Got Milk? campaign.  It’s brilliant – but also ironic, since we now know that the majority of the world’s population cannot digest milk.  And yet, the campaign was incredibly successful.  Now, that’s good marketing!

You may recall the campaign focuses on strong bones.  Vitamin D is crucial for bone health, insulin regulation and ensuring a healthy nervous system (among other things).  It’s no secret that one of the best ways to get Vitamin D is from the sun, which leads me to one theory for why the mutation started in Northern Europe: lack of sun.  Makes sense. We need Vitamin D to survive.  This might also explain why my friend was not aware of this common intolerance: he grew up in Western Washington, which has a reputation for being what?  You guessed it!  Cloudy and rather sun-less.  Not so much lately though… global climate change.  Am I right?


Lactose intolerance is not an allergy

Being so young when I found out that I had this intolerance, I would go around telling people that I was allergic to milk.  Nope.  Not the same thing, my mother told me repeatedly.  Milk allergies can be deadly and occur in the first year of life.  The most ironic thing about all of this?  I didn’t like milk before I learned I could no longer drink it.  Naturally, now that I couldn’t have it I missed it and wanted it.

I distinctly remember complaining to my mother that I wanted milk and she looked at me like I had lost my mind because I had never liked it until the moment I couldn’t have it.   I learned the hard lesson of “you want what you can’t have” at a young age.  I guess that’s the second plus to this whole thing (one being the appendicitis diagnosis skills which have come in handy on numerous occasions).  I would actually walk around telling people I hated milk, as if to brag (this was before my intolerance).  I was an opinionated six-year-old.

I also said this about cake.  I’ve always taken pride in not liking what everyone else likes.


What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance and what can you do about it?

You’re probably thinking, hmm, sounds like I have lactose intolerance.  Finally!  A name for my bloated and gassy state!  Stop living with persistent gassiness and take control.  That’s no way to live.  Keep in mind there are different intolerances, which appear to be mostly based on age.


Here are the symptoms (severity varies depending on your intolerance).  Remember your body changes.   Mine went away and came back worse than before.

  • bloating
  • diarrhea (explosive in some cases. yay!)
  • gas and cramps
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain

Taking enzymes is totally fine (and I’m not a person who likes to take any pill I don’t need)

I don’t even like taking Tylenol for crying out loud, so hear me out.  Lactase enzymes rock my world, but given that my lactose intolerance has gotten worse over the years, they don’t always work.  They were fool-proof when I was younger – so give it a shot.  I try to avoid eating dairy products as much as possible nowadays – emphasis on the word try.  I love dairy.  So… Lactaid is amazing.  Don’t feel like you need to buy the brand name – any brand will do.  It’s exactly the same thing.   I always try to have lactase enzymes with me (I keep them in my car and all my purses).  You can buy them over the counter at most grocery stores.


Eat hard cheeses

Fun fact: The harder the cheese, the less lactose it contains.  This New Year’s at a wine and cheese pairing party my sister threw, I fell in love with aged gouda and learned that it contains hardly any lactose.  Yee-haw!  Also, fat-free and low-fat cheeses are a better bet, too.  Less fat = better for your sensitive digestive track.  Embrace your sensitivity.


Lactose-free milk

For the past three years or so I have only been drinking Lactaid milk.  There is also almond, soy and rice milk.  I prefer Lactaid and because I’m a woman I always buy the one that’s calcium-enriched.


Exercise – the answer to all of life’s problems

I was super active when I look back to when my intolerance practically disappeared.  I played soccer, learned to fence and took body pump and kick-boxing classes all through college.  I’m not as active now….hmm…there might be something to that.  Good thing I’ve started lifting weights and joined a volleyball team… Our name is That’s What She Set.  Perfect, right?


Intolerance levels vary – I know from experience

Keep in mind too that everyone’s lactose intolerance level is different.  At one point I actually grew out of it.  One day out of the blue, after taking lactase enzymes for years, I decided to eat ice cream sans enzymes (I’m such a risk-taker).  I just had a feeling I would be okay.  I was right.  Whoo-hoo!  Unfortunately that didn’t last forever.

I went gung-ho in college and proceeded to consume cheese like a maniac.  My theory is my body didn’t take well to the overindulgence.  A few years ago the beast came back full-throttle and it has progressively worsened over time.  I’m blaming it on old age…or something.  That being said, Lactaid – or lactose-free milk –  is a saint.  Glad I started drinking it.  Also, cheese is incredibly fattening… you would think it was a blessing to not be able to digest it… never will that be true.


Last but not least – congratulations!

Aren’t you glad to know that it’s not the end of the world if you are lactose intolerant?  You’re normal – and for once that’s a good thing.  Do your body good and admit to yourself that you have lactose intolerance.  Congratulate yourself on being perfectly normal and having the tools to take care of your bloated, gassy, nauseated, cramped-up digestive track.

You’re welcome.

Works Cited

Curry, Andrew.  “Archaeology: The milk revolution.” Nature – International Weekly Journal of Science  31 July 2013. Nature Publishing Group. 31 July 2015. Online. <>

Fritz, Angela.  “A parched Seattle breaks two incredible all-time records — hot and dry.” The Washington Post 31 July 2015. The Washington Post. 1 August 2015. Online.  <>

“General Lactase Information.” Digest Milke Enjoy Dairy Again. 2010. 31 July 2015. Online. <>

Goodby, Jeff. “20 Years of ‘Got Milk?’ How such a boring product got such a classic advertising campaign.” AdWeek. 25 Oct. 2013.  31 July 2015. Online. <>

Got Milk. California Milke Processor Board. 2014. 31 July 2015. Online. <>

Hollox, Edward. “Evolutionary Genetics: Genetics of lactase persistence – fresh lessons in the history of milk drinking.” European Journal of Human Genetics.  2005.  Nature Publishing Group  31 July 2015. Online. <>

Lactaid. McNeil Nutritionals, LLC. 2014.  1 August 2015. Online. <>

“Lactose Intolerance.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1 August 2015. Online. <>

“State & County QuickFacts.” United States Census Bureau 28 May 2015. U.S. Department of Commerce. 31 July 2015. Online. <>

Weis, Elizabeth. “Sixty percent of adults can’t digest milk.” USA Today  15 Setp. 2009. USA Today. 31 July 2015. Online. <>

Keep meandering, whether or not you’re lactose intolerant,

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