Drink milk? Can you digest it?

The ability to drink animal milk in adulthood is something that most of us take for granted. However, the gene responsible for breaking down lactose, the sugar in milk, switches off in early childhood in the animal species and the ability to digest lactose also gradually declines with aging. So “naturally,” our ability to digest milk is supposed to be “switched off” in early childhood.

Humans are the only species on the planet that continue to consume milk beyond the weaning age. We are the only species that consume the milk of another species. Our forefathers who domesticated cattle 10,000 years ago, started consuming milk and our body started developing the ability to digest milk, gradually. This capability, however, has not yet spread to the entirety of human species. Many of us still cannot digest milk effectively.

Only 35% individuals across the globe can digest lactose whereas 65% individuals are lactose intolerant. However the level of lactose intolerance ranges from one region of the world to another, where the majority (90-100%) of East Asians are lactose Intolerant and only a minority (5-15%) of Europeans are lactose intolerant.

5 Interesting facts on Lactose Intolerance

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  1. Most individuals are lactose intolerant and yet they could consume milk. The answer lies in the method of preparation, where Indians consume milk which is often fermented into curd or paneer, where the lactose in milk is converted to lactic acid and is easily absorbed.
  2. Around 60-70% of Indians are lactose intolerant. 30% of North Indians and 70% of South Indians are lactose intolerant. The difference in number is due to the ancestry. Since North Indians are the descendants of Aryans who have been dairying for a longer period of time and are believed to be lactose tolerant. So, genetic mixing is responsible for lactose intolerance.
  3. Though lactose intolerance is wide spread, it is not a commonly recognized. Only one in 10 adults report being lactose intolerant, and it is mostly based on self-diagnosis. It is because the severity ranges from one individual to another. Because of lack of awareness of the existence of such a condition, many people attribute the cause of their symptoms to something other than milk consumption.
  4. It has been claimed that lactose intolerant individuals can digest raw milk, however study conducted by Stanford University found that, consumption of raw milk over pasteurized milk does not improve lactose intolerance level.
  5. Lactose Intolerance is different from Milk allergy. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose- milk sugar. Whereas Milk allergy triggers the immune system and it can be life- threating in case of anaphylactic shock.

5 Dietary recommendation for Lactose Intolerant individuals

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  • Try it: Opt for lactose free milk instead of whole milk. Lactose free milk is milk, where lactose is pre-digested. It provides the same nutritional benefits such as calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D found in other dairy products.
  • Stir it: Consume milk along with meals or with other foods. Like milk with corn flakes, muesli or with rice and fruits that may lessen the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
  • Slice it: Include non-dairy calcium rich foods in your diet such as ragi, broccoli, oranges, pinto beans, spinach, soy milk and rice milk to fulfil your calcium needs.
  • Mix it: Milk consumed with soluble fibre rich foods is released in the small intestine at a slower pace bringing down the chances for GI disturbances. For instance, eight medium sized strawberries contain two grams of soluble fibre; so adding these to yoghurt improves lactose tolerance.
  • Spoon it: Inclusion of fermented milk products like curd/dahi, yoghurt, buttermilk that contains lactic acid (easily absorbable form of lactose) provide the nutritional benefits of milk without the symptoms.