Comfort Foods, Lactose Intolerance & Nutrition: An African American Love Story with Dairy
Dairy foods contain nutrients essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being. Dairy is delicious, it’s comforting, it’s fulfilling. Milk is the key ingredient in lots of staple soul food dishes that black families have cooked and loved for generations. While there are many benefits of dairy, various racial groups and ethnicities face challenges and barriers when it comes to enjoying it.
One of the barriers African Americans face when it comes to dairy consumption is lactose intolerance, a food sensitivity where the body can’t break down the naturally occurring sugar, called lactose, found in milk. Uncomfortable symptoms can range from stomach cramps to bloating, gas and diarrhea. Studies have shown that African Americans are one of the racial groups who display higher lactose intolerance rates, not only causing reduced intake of nutrient-rich dairy foods, but avoidance of this food group altogether.
But while some African Americans may avoid daily dairy servings like glasses of milk or yogurt, due to lactose intolerance, some will still indulge in traditional black homemade dishes such as homemade mac & cheese, grits, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, and many other dishes that include milk. Many Americans that claim to have lactose intolerance are self-reported cases, meaning they were not officially diagnosed by a medical doctor and may not actually be living with an intolerance to lactose. There are lots of misconceptions when it comes to lactose intolerance, not just in the African American community, but among all racial groups.
One of the main misconceptions is that being lactose-intolerant means dairy must be completely erased from the diet, when in fact, some dairy foods are naturally low in lactose, or the lactose has been removed, and the likelihood of side effects is reduced. Some of these lactose-friendly dairy foods include hard and aged cheeses, and yogurt with live and active cultures that help break down lactose. But wait…it gets better. Even with an intolerance to lactose, you can still relax and reset with a refreshing glass of lactose-free milk, which contains the same nutrients as regular milk with lactase, an enzyme that helps break down the lactose before your body is expected to do so.
Kelli Wall, former Registered Dietitian at Matrix Head Start School in Detroit, which is predominantly African American, says she encountered many misconceptions and confusion between lactose intolerance and milk (dairy) allergies when it came to parents’ preferences for their child’s diet. Under a federal program, Matrix Head Start required both breakfast and lunch meals to consist of cow’s milk. “I would get calls from parents who said their child was allergic to milk, but the child still ate cheese, yogurt and other dairy products with no side effects,” said Wall. “I would have to educate the parents on the differences between their child being allergic to milk (dairy) and having an intolerance for it, and share alternative options for their child, such as lactose-free milk.”
Wall says she feels it’s very important that she share her knowledge on this subject, especially within the African American community, whose dairy consumption is low. “Since African Americans are more likely to be lactose intolerant, we [our ethnic group] are at risk to become Vitamin D deficient. The dairy food group possesses both Vitamin D and calcium, which are necessary for the growth and development of children.” Wall added, “To ensure African/Black American children grow up to be strong, healthy adults down the road, dairy should be included in their diet to prevent any nutritional deficiencies.”
Educating and bringing awareness to lactose intolerance and its many misconceptions is imperative in the African American community. Ensuring that everyone is properly diagnosed and aware of all their dairy options is the only way to begin increasing this community’s intake of dairy and its essential nutrients. This will lead to healthier lives, increased consumption of delicious, comforting dairy foods and snacks, and will also lead to this vital information being passed on for generations to come.
Click here for additional information on living with lactose intolerance and ways to keep dairy in your diet.